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How Should Christians Engage with Islam? Dr. Ayman Ibrahim

Home » How Should Christians Engage with Islam? Dr. Ayman Ibrahim

Guest: Dr. Ayman Ibrahim | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Ibrahim about Islam. Topics of conversation include:

  • A brief history of Islam
  • The origins of the Quran
  • How to evaluate similarities and distinctions between Christianity and Islam
  • Ways to engage in conversation with Muslims
  • Social, cultural, and theological barriers to sharing the gospel with Muslims
  • Resources for further reading on Islam.

Dr. Ayman Ibrahim holds a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as a PhD from Haifa University. He is professor of Islamic Studies and the director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Ibrahim is the author of several books, including A Concise Guide to the Quran: Answering Thirty Critical Questions (Baker Academic, 2020), and A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad: Answering Thirty Key Questions (Baker Academic, 2022).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. And when we think of Islam, we typically think of the Middle East—maybe North Africa, Indonesia, some of these countries that have significant Muslim populations. But recently we’ve seen a lot of Muslim expansion into places like Europe. Douglas Murray, in his book, The Strange Death of Europe, catalogs how much Muslim immigration is happening there. And if we look at the United States, the same as happening here as well. And I think it causes a lot of consternation for people, but as Christians, I hope we see this as a great opportunity. Instead of just taking the gospel to the nations, sometimes God brings the nations to us. So today I want to talk about—how do we, as Christians, engage with Islam? And to help us understand this question, we have Dr. Ayman Ibrahim. Dr. Ibrahim is professor of Islamic Studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at Southern Seminary. He holds two PhDs in Islamic Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and from Haifa University, and has taught in various countries around the world on the topic of Islam. He is the author of A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad, and A Concise Guide to the Quran, as well as numerous other books and publications on the history and theology of Islam. Dr. Ibrahim, welcome to the podcast.

Ayman Ibrahim (01:29):

Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s an honor. Thank you, Dr. Arnold.

Brian Arnold (01:33):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—how should Christians engage with Islam? But before we even get down into how Christians engage with Islam, I think it’d be really helpful to set the stage for what Islam is. So if you could give us even a brief history of Muhammad, the Quran, and the Five Pillars, I think those would be really helpful things of context—and I know that’s got to be very difficult to give concisely,

Ayman Ibrahim (01:59):

Briefly, Islam is a world religion that is followed by somewhere between 1.5, 1.8 billion-with-a-B. So those who are Muslims follow the religion of Islam. And Islam is a religion that goes beyond religious sets of beliefs, because it’s more like also a cultural identity, or even a nationalistic movement. So you feel like Muslims are united in some sense that goes beyond religious boundaries. Most Muslims—and I’m saying most, because Muslims are not all the same—most Muslims have two sets of important elements of their faith. One is what they do, what they practice, what they perform. And it’s called the Five Pillars of Islam, including fasting during Ramadan, which is coming this month, end of this month, and alms giving, and going to the pilgrimage. So there are some five practices that every Muslim, or most of Muslims, hope to perform to be considered the real Muslims. And the other set of beliefs are called the Six Articles of Faith, which is mostly among Sunni Muslims in particular—believing in a Law, believing in his Apostles or Prophets, believing in his books, the books, the Scriptures he sent, and so forth. So among the majority of Muslims, there are two sets of items. One is what Muslims do—or practice—called the Five Pillars of Islam, and what Muslims believe, which is called the Six Articles of Faith.

Brian Arnold (04:01):

Well, that’s really helpful. And even to give our listeners some context, I believe Muhammad was born in 570, and even within the next hundred to 150 years, Islam really swept through, especially kind of the Southern Mediterranean basin, where Christianity had had a significant stronghold for a long time. But by 650 or so, a lot of those places that had been Christianized for several hundred years were then in Islamic hands. And then from there, kind of continued to spread around the Middle East. One question I have for you, even as we kind of begin, it actually came from my 11-year-old son last night. He’s starting to have a lot of theological questions, and world religion kind of questions. And right before bed, he said, “What are the Muslim Scriptures? And I said, “Well, they’re the Quran.” And he had a lot of questions about how the Quran came together. So what would you say, yes to an 11-year-old, but to our listeners as well, as to what the Quran is and how it came to be?

Ayman Ibrahim (05:01):

Well, the Quran is a book that is mostly like two thirds of the New Testament. And it has chapters, and each chapter has several verses. And it’s not arranged in chronological order, but it is believed by Muslims to be the inerrant word of a law that was given to Muhammad, his apostle. And, as you correctly mentioned, Muhammad was an Arabian bedouin who supposedly was born in 570, and until he was 40 years old, he was one among the Arabs, a merchant doing some trades. But then, he allegedly received a revelation from Allah, through the angel Gabriel, and that was what became later known as the Quran. So this is the conservative, conventional understanding among Muslims regarding their Scripture, the Quran. However, from a scholarly perspective, there is a lot of doubts regarding how this book was formed, or was shaped, because many scholars believe that it was canonized over time, and it took centuries for it to be formed in the way we have it today.

Brian Arnold (06:32):

And that’s not a really popular thought among Muslims today, is it? They don’t think about the Quran going through these changes. One Church Father—some people call him Church Father, I think he’s a bit more medieval—but John of Damascus, who even brings out some of the textual problems in the Quran, in what—the ninth century? And so he grew up in Muslim lands, and knew the Quran inside and out, and saw some of these challenges. And what a lot of Muslims think today is this pristine Quran, that just kind of fell out of heaven, isn’t really quite the case.

Ayman Ibrahim (07:08):

Yeah, absolutely. You are very accurate, because we need always…whenever we approach topics in Islam, we need to distinguish between the belief among the masses—the conservative, conventional belief—and what the evidence, what the data, what the historical accounts provide. Even Muslim historical accounts do not support a book dropped from heaven. So you are accurate when you say that Muslims believe that it is a book that is preserved throughout centuries, and it’s the only preserved text, or Scripture, but their own sources do not support such a claim.

Brian Arnold (07:54):

That’s exactly right, I think. And to recognize—that is a point of entry, I think, Christians can have, even in terms of conversations with Muslims. So I do kind of want to shift gears then, to think about this question—having kind of laid the foundation of what Islam is, you know, what even of your own background helps you not only converse with Islam, but also help others? I mean, you’re at my alma mater. I’m a three-time graduate of Southern Seminary. So thankful that you’re there. These are important things for us to be thinking about, in this day in particular, as the world is more accessible than it’s ever been. So I’d love to just hear a little bit about even your background with it.

Ayman Ibrahim (08:37):

I was born and raised in Egypt. Some believe that I was a pharaoh in the early years, but I wasn’t. Pharoahs are not in my family, but probably in the very past in life. But I was born and raised among Coptic Christians. That was my family growing up. And when I was nine and a half, I began attending Coptic Evangelical Church. So it’s Coptic because it’s by Egyptians. So the word Coptic is more like an ethnicity, rather than a religious adherence. And interacting with Muslims all the time. They were my classmates. They were…when I began my engineering career, they were my colleagues and my coworkers. So I was really blessed to have this firsthand encounter with Muslims. And I encountered different kinds of Muslims—some were just cultural, very nominal, they knew nothing about Islam. And some were religious, committed, and wanted to adhere to the letter of the faith. And I also encountered some radical. So that’s why I always try to help my American friends understand that Muslims are not all the same, and Islam is not monolithic. That’s a general insertion I always try to provide to my friends in America.

Brian Arnold (10:17):

I think that’s a really helpful thing to segue into that point about, is, you know, we hear these words like Islamophobia, and things like that today. And even just in the recent context of the last 20 years, I think all Islam is kind of cast in a certain sense, given the fact of September 11th, and then, you know, multiple wars and things like this that are being fought, just kind of set that stage of—it’s not monolithic. You’re going to find different, even commitments, if I can say that, to Islam. Much like you would find in Christianity. You’ll find a bit of a spectrum of people who take their faith a bit more seriously, and people who it’s more of a cultural identity.

Ayman Ibrahim (10:59):

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t find the word Islamophobia appealing in many aspects. It is misused in our day. I understand that some people can be fearful or scared of Muslims. I can understand that. I understand this exists. However, the word Islamophobia, if I examine it a little bit, it is a phobia of Islam. And Islam, as a set of ideological assertions, should not be shielded from evaluation. So I always tell my students—we need to distinguish between Islam as a religion, and Muslims as followers of that religion. Muslims are to be loved, we care for them, we have good news given from the Lord for them, and we love to engage them in conversations and have them in our homes. However, Islam as a set of belief system shouldn’t be shielded from evaluation.

Ayman Ibrahim (12:12):

And basically, the word Islamophobia in our days is used to…it’s like a weapon against any kind of evaluation of the truth claims of Islam. That’s why you feel like—well, is this really accurate? Is it a phobia, like irrational fear, of Islam? Or some people are actually concerned for what is going on in terms of people adhering to the letter of the faith, and through which, making a lot of atrocities. Actually harming some Muslims. So there are some Muslims who are harming some Muslims. So I think we need to approach the word Islamophobia with a little bit of nuance here. You see what I mean?

Brian Arnold (13:03):

Oh, absolutely, I do. And I would agree with that. I think part of the way—because I would also say it’s not a helpful term a lot of times—it’s used in the media a lot. And I never know exactly what they mean by it. I do wonder though, if some people would say that Islam does not seem as open to the same critiques that even Christianity is. I’m thinking in the western world, right? And a lot of that seems to stem from fear, thinking—if we criticize Islam with the same ferocity that we do with, you know, Christianity, that it would be dangerous. And we saw that, you know, Je Suis Charlie in France, what was that, 10, 15 years ago? Something like that. So, you know, it is often said too, I hear, as people think about engaging with Islam, and I can think of a very prominent evangelical institution, university, that a professor said a number of years ago—it’s one of the major Abrahamic faiths. Islam is. Just like Judaism and Christianity. And so we all kind of go back to the same God. So I hear this a lot. How do you evaluate a statement like that?

Ayman Ibrahim (14:18):

I evaluate it from my interaction with Muslims as adherence of the faith and with studying Islamic texts. I think this Abrahamic…like, one umbrella that is bringing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism under Abraham is a big social, public discourse, but it doesn’t have true roots in history or in theology. So let me explain briefly. Even Muslims, in their own texts, in their own sacred texts, do not believe that they have many common arguments, or many common grounds, with other faiths. But in recent years, it was really important for Islam to be joining a major movement of—all of us follow the same faith, in general. All of us worship a similar God, all of us…and it’s part of a social movement, rather than a theological one. So do I believe that we…the three religions follow the same direction of Abraham? I really don’t feel this is an appealing idea. However, I understand that some people want to advance this thought to make it more, like—okay, you know what? We want to live in harmony and we want to promote coexistence. So I think in that direction, you know, I think…

Brian Arnold (16:03):

Absolutely. And we should certainly want peace amongst each other, right? And not warfare, not shedding blood. But I like how you make the theological distinction. You know, I think about even something like First John 2:23—”No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Jesus makes this point in the gospels to the Jews who say, “God is our Father.” And he says—you don’t have God as your Father if you don’t acknowledge that I’m his Son. Same thing with Islam, right? Is that’s one of the central truth claims of Christianity. If you deny that the Son is co-eternal with the Father, and has been sent by the Father for the redemption of sin, and if you deny the Holy Spirit—right, the Holy Trinity—you don’t have God as your Father. And I think that’s an important theological distinction.

Ayman Ibrahim (16:51):

Absolutely. And once you begin a conversation with a sincere Muslim, this whole idea of “we are all Abrahamic,” or “we are all worshiping the same God”—this argument will fall apart, because Muslims will never accept some particularities in the theological claims of Christianity, and vice versa. So, you know…

Brian Arnold (17:14):

So let’s get to something really practical. Let’s say we’ve got some listeners who have some neighbors who are Muslim, or coworkers, and they want to know, as a Christian, how do I best do this? A lot of fear. And I don’t even just mean in terms of violence or something like that. I mean, in terms of—I don’t think I’m going to know what to say. I don’t know how to approach it. I’m not sure what some of the best inroads are to the conversation. What do you say to Christians to really help them think through engagement?

Ayman Ibrahim (17:45):

Some of the most kind and most hospitable, and most generous people you will meet in your life are Muslim. Begin befriending them. Don’t think of Muslims as…like people who are different, and I want to stay away. I don’t think this is the right approach, especially for followers of Christ. I encourage you—speak with Muslims, engage them in conversation, befriend them and love them for who they are. And you have a gospel that you can present in the conversation. Now, I encourage people just to think of Muslims, not as projects, but as really people that you can befriend. And you can begin a conversation by asking, “So how did you come to America? Tell me about your family, about your siblings. How does life treat you in America?” Just sincere, good conversation. And trust me, if you don’t begin talking about God in like two, three minutes, Muslims will begin talking about this. Muslims are not like Westerners—afraid of conversation about politics or religion. They are always ready to talk about politics and religion, all the time. So you don’t need, really, to force a conversation about God. It will come through. So overcome your fears, begin a conversation with Muslims. Don’t try to force the religion. Just talk about life, and then present your identity in Christ in the conversation. And you will be surprised how wonderful the friendship will develop.

Brian Arnold (19:43):

And if we have the Holy Spirit of God living inside of us, there’s something different about Christians, that eventually people are going to say—what is that? Why are you different? Why are you handling suffering different? What is that reason for the hope, as First Peter says, in you? Well, let’s get into even some of the theological pieces then, of you’ve befriended them, you’ve started a great relationship. What are some of the hurdles that Christians are going to experience in discussing the faith with a Muslim? And here I’m thinking about things, even like the Trinity or Scripture. What are some of those most common areas?

Ayman Ibrahim (20:20):

There are social and cultural barriers that Christians need to cross. And there are some theological. So I always try to tell my friends here in the States that one of the social or cultural barriers is that many Muslims come to America with the idea that Christians are Hollywood members.

Brian Arnold (20:48):

Is that not true? Oh, okay, yeah, yeah.

Ayman Ibrahim (20:51):

Because Muslims do not often separate between religion and state. So when they approach America, they are seeing America as Hollywood promotes. And that is for them, America as a Christian nation. Of course, we know that this is inaccurate. But Muslims think—okay, if Saudi Arabia is a Muslim nation, America is a Christian nation, and they always think in that paradigm. So I always say to my female students and my male students, your first role is to present the image of Christ. For female, I say—no, we are not…I am follower of Christ. I’m not like what you see in Hollywood. And, of course, for men too—I don’t mess around, or stuff like that. Now, for the theological aspects, as you mentioned, Muslims often have this erroneous, like, wrong idea that Christians do not have a reliable Scripture. So you need to cross that barrier. And I explain this in detail in my book, in my recent book, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor with the Gospel. And another barrier is—oh, Christians worship three gods. How can you handle that question? Of course, we don’t worship three gods, we worship only one God in three persons. And this actually is very plausible to explain to Muslims if you get the chance to do that. And I detail the explanation in my evangelist book, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor with the Gospel.

Brian Arnold (22:32):

So that’s what I was going to ask next, is just some idea for resources that you would have for people. So you’ve written this book, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor with the Gospel. You’ve also…I mentioned these before, your book on the Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad, and A Concise Guide to the Quran, which I have, and I find to be very helpful, as really good introductory guides to understanding Islam, some of their most sacred texts, and obviously prophet. And now also this help that you’ve given the church in—how do we actually engage our Muslim neighbor? Because this is going to become more and more common, I think, just as there’s immigration happening worldwide. And like I said before, I think that’s a good…I mean, I hope Christians can see that as a beautiful thing, a good thing, an opportunity that really has not been afforded in the history of the world. That because of more porous borders that are happening, that does increase evangelistic opportunities with people that would not have been there before. Are there some other resources that you would point people to?

Ayman Ibrahim (23:33):

Yeah. Well, the three you mentioned are the most important for our audience today. Because the one on evangelism is very practical, and you…like, it gives some questions that you can ask Muslims and some ways that you can describe the Trinity, the Triune God, and how Christians are not polytheists, and how you can trust the Bible as reliable. And the other two, one on the Quran, and one on Muhammad’s life, is because these two are important. Because these are the two major foundations of Islam. If you want to say Islam is one thing, it is one religion built on two foundations—Muhammad and the Quran. And both are explained in these tool books, you know?

Brian Arnold (24:25):

Well, thank you so much for serving the church by writing these. I have found them to be very accessible. I think anybody could pick them up, and read them, and benefit from them. And I just want to address the Christians listening right now of the opportunity that we have—that Jesus Christ is ransoming people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and false religion. And we have an opportunity to take the gospel in love to people who will also confess him as Lord. So thank you so much for your work that you’re doing at Southern Seminary and through your writing ministry to help Christians think about how to engage Islam. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Ayman Ibrahim (25:04):

Thank you so much, Dr. Arnold. It was a pleasure, and I pray God would expand your work and bless you abundantly.

Brian Arnold (25:12):

Likewise, brother. Thank you.

Outro (25:14):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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