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A Friendly Neighbor or a Fanatic Foe?

There has been much discussion about the character and values of Muslims, generally, and Arab Muslims, in particular. Are Arab Muslims friendly, hospitable people or are they hostile fanatics, wanting to kill every Christian they meet? Recently at a church meeting I spoke to a sincere lady who believed that Christians could not visit certain Muslim countries because they would kill any Christian they met. I was glad to let her know that was not true and that Muslims expected you to be a Christian if you were from the West and were often fascinated by America and wanted to know more about our life.

When such questions are posed about people who are generally unknown to us, it becomes easy to view them all as having the same behavior and values. If we receive most of our information from the mass media and then only about those who do evil, it will obviously color our opinions.

We should understand that such a large group of people do not all have the same values, beliefs, or behavior. It is possible to describe in broad terms three different types of Muslims based upon their knowledge of their holy book the Qur’an and their desire to lead a religious life. The Secular Muslim knows little of the Qur’an and desires to live his life here on earth apart from God. The Moderate Muslim knows more of the Qur’an and wants to make his faith relevant for modern times. These two groups want to interpret fundamental and violent verses in the Qur’an so as to be tolerant of those of other faiths. The Fundamentalist wants to apply the violent verses as he sees fit and will use sometimes any means to show unbelievers the power of Islam hoping to convert them to the faith. The truth is that many Muslims are peace-loving people, yet they understand what motivates the extremists.

A Tradition of Hospitality

Most westerners are not aware of the long tradition of hospitality that exists in the Middle East among Arab Muslims. This practice is often expressed in short phrases that people learn as children, such as:

“Our home is your home.”

This phrase is spoken to people who arrive from a journey and who may be perfect strangers. In the tradition of the Bedouins, Arab hospitality teaches that you must take care of a stranger or visitor to your tent until he is able to continue his journey.

The most common social event used to express hospitality is to eat a meal together. To be a good host, you must be prepared for people to arrive at any time of the day or night. Often they arrive without warning, and may stay for several hours. In many homes a whole room is set aside just for guests apart from the rest of the home. When the guest arrives there is a long series of greetings that must be exchanged. These can take several minutes to complete and involve questions about the condition and health of family and life in general. Then it is time for coffee, tea, cakes, and cookies. The guest is urged to stay and a meal is prepared. The home, and indeed an entire village, can be judged on its ability to provide for a guest in their midst.

Visits to a home and family are required at times of “rights of passage” such as a wedding, graduation, birth, death, or even a circumcision. To fail to visit or show hospitality at such times could adversely affect relationships between families for years.

Even those who are outside Islam, who live among Muslims, experience this hospitality. It is seen in a sincere desire to protect and warn you when hardship is coming, such as a confrontation with fundamentalists. This is based on the conviction you must be protected from danger since you are the guest and under their protection.

What does the Qur’an say about violence when read through the eyes and morals of the secular and moderate Muslim? They see the verses in the Qur’an that speak about kindness and peace toward people of the Book (Christians and Jews).

“So, if you (Muhammad) are in doubt concerning that which We have revealed unto you then ask these who are reading the Book (Bible) before you. (Surah 10:94)

…and you will find the nearest in love to the believers (Muslims) those who say: “We are Christians.” (Surah 5:82)

There are many Muslims who see these and other verses in the Qur’an as the approach they must take to unbelievers if Islam is truly to be a religion of peace.

The Example of Violence

There is also a darker side to Islam and the Qur'an--the side which has been called the “violent edge.” This is seen in such verses as:

“I against my brother, my brother and I against the stranger.”

This side of Islam is the one of the extremist, the people who look to Muhammad’s example in his later life, and the words of the Qur’an from that period, that allows such violence.

In the first years of Muhammad’s “ministry” when his followers were small in number, he spoke kindly to and about Christians and Jews, probably with the hope of converting them to Islam. Later when he moved his operations to Medina from Mecca, he became more like an earthly king and a strong military leader. In this later stage of his work, he changed his opinion concerning the Christians and Jews. It is here that he changes his opinion of Christians and says among other things:

“Jihad is ordained for you.” (Surah 2:216)

“Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His messenger (Muhammad) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (Islam) among the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (Surah 9:29)

“And fight them until there is no more Unbelief (Fitnah) and all worship is for Allah (alone). (Surah 2:193)

“Kill the unbelievers (mushrikun) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform the public prayers and give alms, then leave their way free. Allah is forgiving and most merciful. (Surah 9:5)

These verses and others like them directly contrast earlier verses. Orthodox interpretations of Islam say that the earlier verses were replaced by these later ones, the ones that advocate violence. Thus, to be orthodox in practice is to obey these later verses. Thankfully, most Muslims believe these verses do not apply for today and believe that Islam must be a peaceful religion, winning converts by the spoken and written word, and not by the sword.

The answer to our original question is complex, because Islam is a complex religion. As in other faiths, the response of an individual depends on how he has been trained in his religion. So it is in Islam. Most Muslims have been told Islam is a religion of peace. They want to live in peace, to raise their family, and go to heaven. They usually want to help spread Islam, but not in a violent way. However, there are individuals who are willing to advance Islam by the swords with the promise of entry into Paradise. They get this idea from people who have told them, with great assurance, that death during Jihad guarantees entrance into Paradise for themselves as well as their family.

Our Response

Our response to such people can be fear and hate, but it should not be. Instead our response must be one of love and compassion. As Muslims come to the West we can have one of two responses as followers of Jesus. We can view them as a threat to our way of life and even freedom of religion or we can view their coming as an opportunity, sent from God, to test and strengthen our faith. We should see this as an opportunity to help people who are in darkness to see the LIGHT. If we respond with hate, we will be no different than others. If we respond with love, then we can fulfill the law of love Jesus practiced.

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