Some of the kindest, most generous, and most hospitable people I know are Muslims. I lived in North Africa and the Middle East for nearly seven years, and during that time my love for Muslim people grew exponentially. I long to see them understand and believe the gospel of Jesus.
So, when I see churches and organizations urging Christians to befriend their Muslim neighbors I get very excited. I want Christians everywhere to see the Great Commission opportunity presented by our Muslim neighbors rather than viewing them as a threat. So, I am sympathetic to those who call Christians to “cross bridges to Islam” by highlighting similarities between Islam and Christianity.
“Bridges to Islam can often be constructed by highlighting superficial similarities. Inspecting those bridges carefully will help us present the good news of Jesus in ways that are not just understandable but also faithful to Scripture.”
Sometimes in an effort to focus on what we have in common, though, we can fail to inspect the bridges we’re trying to cross. Theologically speaking, bridges to Islam can often be constructed by highlighting superficial similarities. Inspecting those bridges carefully will enable us to have more meaningful conversations with our Muslim friends and help us present the good news of Jesus in ways that are not just understandable but also faithful to Scripture.
Common Prophets, Different Prophecy
The first bridge many try to cross is the referencing the many characters that appear in both Christian and Muslim teaching. It is very common to hear Muslims contend that they believe in all of the biblical prophets—including Jesus. It is tempting, then, to view these historical figures as bridges between Christianity and Islam. But before we grant this claim, we must consider who these characters are in our Muslim neighbor’s mind.
The similarities between the biblical characters and their counterparts in the Qur’an are often exhausted by noting shared names such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David. But for Muslims, these prophets do not advance redemptive history. They simply repeat and reiterate the Islamic call to submit to Allah’s will.
Instead of crossing this bridge by affirming your Muslim friend’s claim to believe in Adam, Abraham, and Moses, etc., first, ask them what they believe about these people. Then, having discussed their prophetic roles in Islam, invite them to read the biblical accounts with you. What your Muslim friends encounter in the Bible will not be the common ground they expect. Instead, they will see how the lives of these characters served to advance God’s purposes in redemptive history. Doing so will open many opportunities to explain the narrative development of the Bible that ultimately leads to Christ.
Common Sins, Different Sin
Another suggested bridge to Islam is the ethical overlap of the two faiths. Along with a host of other similarities, Muslims view extramarital sex, dishonesty, and disbelief as sins. It can be tempting to assume that a similar list of sins indicates that we also share the same concept of sin.
But the definition of sin in Islam is very different from that of the Bible. For Muslims, sin is forgetting the ways of Allah or failing to submit one’s will to Allah. Sin is also inevitable because humanity has always been weak of will and memory. And finally, sin does not rupture humanity’s relationship with God because, according to most Islamic teaching, a personal relationship between creation and Creator does not exist.
Thus, in Islam sins are the mistakes or failures made during one’s life. And life itself is an extended test of one’s ability to remember and submit to Allah’s will.
Common Repentance, Different Atonement
A third bridge commonly assumed between Islam and Christianity is divine forgiveness. Since the Qur’an is filled with calls to repentance and appeals to Allah for forgiveness, it can seem like divine forgiveness following human repentance is a shared concept of central value.
Yet upon closer inspection, Islam teaches that divine forgiveness is an act of dismissal rather than the satisfied justice one finds in the biblical concept of atonement. In fact, although the Qur’an uses the same word that the Bible uses for atonement, the concepts are totally different.
The Qur’an uses the word atonement to depict Allah choosing to ignore and overlook a person’s failures. In Islam, Allah can overlook imperfections because humans will never dwell in his presence.
But the Bible sees atonement as a process of relational and judicial reconciliation, part of which requires a substitutionary agent to bear the penalty of sin. Biblical forgiveness requires the just punishment of sin and the satisfaction of God’s righteous wrath to restore the broken relationship between human beings and God. The Bible teaches that in the end—in faithfulness to his stated purposes throughout history—God will dwell with his people in a new creation (Rev. 21:1–5). And for us to bear the immediate, holy presence of God, our sin must be fully atoned for, not merely covered over or ignored.
“It is better to seek further understanding rather than to assume that common language expresses common teaching.”
Clarifications and Distinctions
Recognizing the points of contact we have as Christians with our Muslim neighbors doesn’t mean, of course, that we annoyingly make them define every word they use and scrutinize their definitions mercilessly. Yet, when we encounter apparently shared ideas, we also cannot immediately assume that they are bridges of shared understanding. When key words and ideas come up in conversation, asking for clarification can be a neighborly act of love that shows a desire to understand your Muslim friend’s thoughts. It is better to seek further understanding rather than to assume that common language expresses common teaching.
Effectively communicating the gospel to our Muslim friends means that we must be conscious of our ultimately irreconcilable theological frameworks—especially when considering what seems to be common ground. By asking clarifying questions in our discussions regarding our faith we neither burn down bridges nor do we cross them uninspected. Rather, by asking clarifying questions, we demonstrate a desire to know, hear and love our Muslim friends—a posture that displays the attractiveness of the gospel message.
What to Do This Week
One immediate opportunity to practice this approach will present itself on August 10, 2019. On this day, Muslims all around the world will celebrate Eid al-Adha, an annual Islamic holiday that involves slaughtering animals in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (compare Genesis 22:1–19 with Qur’an 37:99–111).
Although this holiday appears to be based upon a shared story, the idea of sacrifice fits better in the biblical story than it does in the qur’anic worldview. You can open a conversation by politely asking your Muslim friend what the holiday means and how it is observed. Listen to the answer thoughtfully. Often, a good follow up question to ask is, “Why would Allah provide a ‘great ransoming sacrifice’ when Abraham had already passed the test of faithfulness?” (see Qur’an 37:107).
Show your Muslim friend how God’s provision of a sacrifice in Genesis 22 fits in the biblical story as it prepares the reader for the logic of the Levitical system of atonement found later in the Pentateuch in Leviticus 16–17. Once they see Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram as a foreshadowing of sacrificial atonement, you can demonstrate how it all points to Christ’s sacrifice and eternal intercession as our Great High Priest (Heb. 7–10).
May God grant us many such opportunities as we seek to help our Muslim friends understand and believe the gospel.
 For example, Qur’an 3:65–67 praises Abraham as a proto-Muslim.
 Hebrews 11–12 provides a canonical framework for studying shared characters. Invite your Muslim friend to compare the characters mentioned in Hebrews 11 with their counterparts in the Qur’an. Show how Hebrew develops the relationship between the faith of the forefathers and their role in showing how redemption history culminates in Christ.