Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog


Roland Clarke


Humble “words aptly spoken are like apples of gold in a silver setting” (Prov. 25:11)

This paper was originally presented immediately after a session based on Solomon's observation that God has planted eternity in man's heart. If the human quest for immortality resonates with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so also this topic of humility. Like immortality, humility has an intuitive appeal that makes it an effective door opener for sowing God's Word in people's hearts. Humility is a character quality that is admired in most cultures and religions. For this reason it is a suitable topic for engaging unbelievers in seasoned-with-salt conversations, especially seeing how Scripture links humility with children.

King David gave us a beautiful example in Psalm 131,

Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord— now and always.

I recently had an opportunity to give this Psalm to someone while I was visiting a certain country in Africa. I stopped at a shop to greet Mr Hussein whom I had met a year and a half earlier. He remembered me and gave me a warm welcome. Then he told me with a beaming smile how God answered his prayer. His wife gave birth to a baby girl – their first and only child in 22 years! I was so happy to hear this good news!

Later I realised this was an opportunity to give my friend a baby gift. But how would I find my way through the shopping district in a town which I was still very unfamiliar with? Also how would I choose an appropriate outfit for a 5 month old Muslim baby?

The following day, I was surprised when a lawyer, who I had just met, provided the right person to help me – a young Muslim lady who was interning as an attorney in his office. He asked her to walk me to the shopping district and help me choose a suitable baby dress. We bought it and delivered it to Hussein.

I showed the intern a small card that I included with the gift. On it was printed the above quoted meditation from Zaburi 131 by the prophet Daudi. (Note: The Swahili Bible used in this area uses the term Zaburi for Psalms and Daudi for David. Not only so, David is referred to in Acts 2:30 as a “prophet.”)

But perhaps you are wondering, “Do Muslims really value humility?” Yes, in their own way. Many times each day they show humility by how they submit to God in prayer. They bow low and put their forehead on the ground before Allah, the supremely exalted One.

However, there is something our Muslim friends need to remember so that they can better understand this psalm. “Nabi” Daudi was not just a prophet, he was also a king. In fact, he was Israel's greatest king, as indicated by the star of David which can be seen at the centre of the Israeli flag. When we consider how great David was, it is all the more remarkable that he was humble!

Now let me share another incident involving 3-6 year old children. While I was teaching in this un-named country, I “happened” to meet 5 Christians who are running kindergarten programs. I also saw many signboards on the road side advertising kindergartens. I was told that most kindergartens are run by Christians and many children who attend them are Muslim. Why do Christians establish these schools? I believe it is a natural outgrowth of the indwelling Spirit – his fruit. A by-product is that we build good relations with Muslim children and their parents. Hopefully, as we provide this service our “light shines in such a way that they glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

However, “Should we only shine the light in subtle unspoken ways or should it also be with words?” Ideally Christians who manage these schools want to imitate Jesus who combined “grace and truth” (John 1:18). “How then can we make the most of the opportunity to engage Muslim families in seasoned-with-salt conversations?” (Colossians 4:4-6) How can we gently unwrap the Good News in appropriate ways and make it clear so that unbelievers come to truly know God and glorify our Father?”

Let me share a story that helps to answer this, even though it did not happen in a school situation. I have a Christian friend who recently came to Canada as a refugee from Iraq. One day I visited him at his home. While his wife was preparing the tea, I suggested to Ashour that he phone our mutual friend, Mohamed, and ask him to join us. Incidentally, Moe is also a refugee from Iraq. So Moe came over and we all sat down to enjoy a cup of tea.

I suggested to Ashour that his kids might like to join us because I wanted to read a short meditation about children written by Daudi. His two children – 8 & 10 years old – came and sat down with us and we all listened as Ashour read Psalm 131:1-3 from his Arabic Bible.

We briefly discussed it and then turned to look at another similar reading in the Gospel (Injil). Matthew 18:1-5 tells how Christ's disciples asked,

“Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He answered them by inviting a child to join them and then said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.”

Ashour and I asked a couple simple questions from this reading. Then after a while, he let his kids go back to their rooms to continue playing. Meanwhile our conversation moved on to consider another story about humility as recorded in Mark 10:42-45:

So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Did you notice that humility is an important thread interwoven through all these passages? You will recall that we already noted how humility resonates with Muslims. But that's not all. They also value children and family life which means it is appropriate to ask, “Why do you think Nabi Daudi and Jesus used children to illustrate humility?” This stimulated a lively discussion that helped to open Mohamed's mind to understand some simple insights.

Our discussion continued quite late that evening, but what I want to emphasise is not that you should copy everything we did, but rather, that you appreciate a basic pattern of how to unfold a theme from the OT to the New Testament.

At this point, I want to offer some suggestions that may help you engage your Muslim friend in a meaningful faith conversation. Look for an opportunity to observe how Jesus sometimes illustrated humility with the imagery of a servant. Notice in Mark 10 Jesus didn't focus so much on childlike humility, as he did on being like a servant.

Be humble like a slave

Interestingly, servant-humility has a familiar ring to Muslims. They believe that all the prophets (as well as  believers in general) are servants or slaves of Allah.

I suggest that you make a friendly comment, affirming something that Muslims and Christians believe in common. For example, “I know you believe in the prophets.” Then ask "May I show you a prophecy explaining how God's servant, the Messiah, will be humiliated, but in the end, be honored and greatly exalted?"

The prophet Isaiah foretold that the servant of the Lord, (a Messianic title) would be humiliated and then be exalted. We see this in Isaiah 52:10,13-14:

The Lord has demonstrated his holy power before the eyes of all the nations. All the ends of the earth will see the victory of our God.

See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man.

What did Jesus mean by ransom?

Next we want to consider carefully what Jesus meant by ransom. It may be helpful to reread the last half of Mark 10:45 where Christ says he lays down his life as a ransom.

Bear in mind, few Muslims know what this word ransom really means. It will probably be necessary for you to patiently explain it and this may take considerable time, perhaps more than one visit. (See footnote for further ideas that you could include in discussions.) Of course, there are some Muslims who realise that ransom implies the sacrificial death of Christ. In such cases, the conversation can move quickly out of one's “comfort zone.” It may even spark an argument on a vital topic that has often separated Christians and Muslims for 1400 years. (Note: devout Muslims believe that when Isa returns to earth in the last days he will break the cross – the key emblem of Christianity!)

How then can we grapple with this touchy topic in a tactful way that helps us not to get embroiled in a heated argument? Bear in mind, we cannot avoid the “offence” which is implicit in the cross. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Nor should we be afraid or ashamed to face persecution for preaching the cross, as Paul testified in Galatians 6:12.

If your Muslim friend agrees to read the paragraph immediately following Isaiah 52:10-14, then continue to read the next chapter, especially verses 4-10. However, if he/she is not interested, don't push him.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows[a] that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in mid-stream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people.

He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief.

Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.

Notice how Isaiah 52/53 correlates with the three key ideas that we glimpsed earlier in Mark 10:

1) the Messiah's servant-spirit,

2) his exaltation and

3) giving his life as a ransom. Jesus said in Mark 10:45 that he came to give his life a ransom for many.

Take the time, if necessary, to show how several statements in Isaiah 53 imply the idea of ransom, i.e. making a payment for someone else, e.g. the Messiah will pay the punishment for our sins. He will be pierced for our transgressions. Not only so, the punishment that he suffers involves laying down his life. Notice Isaiah states that Messiah's life will be cut short in midstream and he will be buried in a grave.

Another Scripture that is relevant to our discussion about being a humble servant and then being elevated is Philippians 2:5-11. This passage underscores how the Messiah suffered the worst kind of humiliation but then he was exalted to the highest position.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Earlier I suggested that the fivefold series of Scriptures as outlined above contains insights/clues can be useful in a kindergarten school having a number of Muslim kids. If you are involved in a program like this, you may want to read the appendix which explores creative ideas how one can introduce character-building devotionals to the school curriculum in a tactful, gracious manner without offending Muslims.

Whether you are a kindergarten teacher or you simply meet families and Muslim children, on an informal basis as a parent, this article is profoundly relevant to all of us. These insights are useful whether you are a parent, grandparent, uncle/aunt, etc. Finally, let us remember that because children are small it is easy for us to overlook them. However, Jesus cherished and even honored them. Elsewhere Jesus says we should not underestimate small things,

If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities. (Luke 16:10)

All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.

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A suitable way to begin a conversation about Abraham with your Muslim friend is to read Surah 37:109-111. These Qur'anic verses say that Allah ransomed the son of Abraham with a momentous sacrifice. There is a close connection between ransom and sacrifice. I encourage you to read the following five Scriptures that unfold the lamb theme through the entire Bible. All these passages use the twin themes of sacrifice/ransom as glimpsed in Surah 37. This story, highlighting a supreme test in the life of Abraham, has long been recognised as an effective springboard (common ground) for sharing the Gospel with Muslims. 1) Genesis 22:1-14, 2) the Passover Lamb in Exodus chapter 12-15. 3) Isaiah 53:7 4) John 1:29 5) Revelation 5:9. Two articles that discuss these passages more fully are available online:

The Mystery of Abraham's Sacrifice can be downloaded here.

Allah hu akbar - God is the Greatest can be downloaded here.

Appendix: This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine

Do you work in a kindergarten with Muslim children? If so, the following discussion may interest you. We want to explore creative ideas how to make the most of opportunities to sow seeds in the hearts of these children as well as parents.

Recently I visited in a certain country in Africa and met half a dozen brothers and sisters who work in different kindergarten programs. Most of them taught in a school where a majority of the learners were Muslims! I was interested to hear each one describe different circumstances they work under, especially unspoken pressures inhibiting them from quoting the Bible. In fact most of them could not even tell stories of prophets from the OT. It is important that we look creatively at these barriers that frustrate our efforts to be effective witnesses for Christ.

One lady who oversees a kindergarten told how her school offers an optional session each Saturday where they are able to teach various OT stories. However, most kindergarten programs did not feel free to give any Biblical input because they did not want to offend the sensitivities of Muslim parents. They believed that if they did quote from or allude to the Bible the parents would inevitably hear about it.

One wonders, “Are there no creative possibilities for introducing some Bible teaching, even just a short devotional based on an OT prophet?”

It seems to me that most kindergarten schools have established a good rapport with Muslim parents. Couldn’t one build on this by assigning a teacher to conduct a friendly visit to a couple key Muslim parents. He/she could begin the conversation by simply saying, “the teachers are considering ways to improve the curriculum.”

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

Then the teacher can explain how they've noticed there is nothing in the curriculum that involves “life lessons” or “character building”. One suggestion for remedying this would be to have a 10 minute meditation each day that looks at the story of a prophet, highlighting how he demonstrated an admirable character trait. For example, humility (Daudi in Psalm 131), courage (Daniel 3, Shadrack, Meshack etc.), faith (Ibrahim, Abraham), patience (Ayoub, Job)

We might be amazed how the Lord could answer our prayers and open a door to introduce such “devotionals” at the beginning of each day. Here are several reasons that might predispose Muslims to be favourable to this proposal.

1) When we openly share such a proposal and act in a consultative manner with parents it communicates profound respect.

2) It is important to wisely choose examples of character traits that the school staff think would be good to teach the children. The traits listed above resonate strongly with Muslims and will go a long way towards persuading them to agree with you. It may be helpful to expand on one or two examples, such as humility or courage. Don’t be timid to actually read the entire story of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego in Daniel chapter 3 because it appeals very strongly to Muslims. By the way, Danyal is esteemed as a prophet in Islam, even though his name is not mentioned in the Qur'an.

It could also be effective to begin expanding on the theme of humility by reading Matthew 18:1-5. This story has an undeniable ring of truth to Muslims. Let us pray that God uses it to pave the way for Muslim parents to give teachers more freedom to teach from the prophets. Let's not unnecessarily restrict ourselves by proposing that we (only) teach from the OT prophets.