When the average Westerner hears “Muslim,” a number of images come to mind—mostly negative. But most Muslims would be just as horrified as we are at the assumptions entertained about them. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that Westerners have about Muslims:
Misconception 1: Most Muslims Support Terrorism.
Christians won’t usually come out and say that they think all Muslims are terrorists. But many do assume that the majority of Muslims support terrorism, albeit quietly. Much has been written about how Islam was established “by the sword,” or how Muslims engaging in terrorist activity are simply obeying what the Qur’an tells them to do. It is certainly easy to find Muslims using the Qur’an to justify violence. Even when you give the Qur’an a charitable reading, asking “What would Muhammad do?” will lead to a very different place than “What would Jesus do?”
That said, most of the Muslims you encounter—either in Western or in Islamic countries—are not violent people. They are kind, peaceable people and they are often embarrassed by the actions of Muslims throughout the world. While there is a good chance they see world politics very differently from the average Westerner, you will most likely find them warm, hospitable, and kind.
Yes, sincere Muslims believe that Islam will one day rule the world. And we can certainly chide Muslims for not speaking out more against terrorism. But we won’t get very far with them when we assume things about them that are not true. Just as we hate to be maligned, they hate it also.
Misconception 2: All Muslim women feel oppressed.
Westerners often think of the Islamic woman as severely oppressed. They have a mental picture of a woman, hunched over, walking six feet behind her husband, staring dutifully downward. She can barely read, can’t write at all, and longs for freedom from the oppressive rule of Islam and her dictatorial husband.
This is often very far from the truth. Here are three things to keep in mind about the women of Islam:
A. Many Muslim men and women are happily married. The married couples I met when I lived in a Muslim country certainly didn’t do “romance” as Westerners are accustomed to. But neither were the women the demeaned sex-slaves that many Westerners often assume.
There were, of course, some exceptions. I had friends whose wives were rarely allowed out of the back of the house, must less out into the community. And there are certain cultures (Afghanistan, for instance) in which oppression seems more the norm than the exception. But it is an overstatement to say that all Muslim women see themselves as oppressed.
B. Women are often the most ardent defenders of Islam. Ironic but true: despite Islam’s history of oppression, women will often be Islam’s most ardent supporters. Many Islamic women, especially in the Western world, call for reform in how women are treated in Islamic culture, but rarely for an end to Islam itself.
C. There is no denying, however, that the Qur’an and Hadith speak disparagingly of women. The Hadith says that 80 percent of the people in hell are women. In explaining why the witness of a woman is equal to only half of a man’s in court, it says, “Because of the deficiency in their brains.” The Qur’an says that Muslim wives “are like a field to be plowed,” which has often been used to legitimize patriarchy and male dominance. And none of this takes into account localized practices which often exceed the Qur’an in brutality.
Some Islamic scholars will say that I am reading these texts wrongly. But the fact remains: much of the worst oppression of women happens in Muslim countries. Islam lacks the robust Judeo-Christian teaching asserting the equality of men and women as both made in God’s image. It may not be universal, but many Islamic women do feel imprisoned. In contrast, showing Muslim women their dignity in Christ has, in many places, proven to be an immensely effective evangelism strategy.
Misconception 3: Muslims seek to know a different God than Christians do.
This is controversial, but hear me out. Muslims claim to worship the God of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Many missionaries find it therefore helpful to start with Muslims using the Arabic term for God, “Allah” (meaning literally, “the Deity”), and from there to explain that the God Muslims seek to worship, the God of the Prophets, was the God present in bodily form in Jesus Christ, revealed most fully by him, and the One worshipped by Christians for the past two millennia. This is not the same as saying that becoming a Muslim is like a “first step to becoming a Christian.” And it certainly doesn’t mean that Islam is an alternate way of getting to heaven. It simply means that we are both referring to the only, One deity when we say “God.”
You might ask, “But isn’t the Islamic God so different from the Christian God that they cannot properly be called by the same name?” Perhaps. The question about whether to say that “Allah” refers to the wrong God (or to wrong ideas about the right God) is a highly nuanced one, and there’s not an easy answer. There is no doubt that Muslims believe blasphemous things about God, and their beliefs about Allah grew out of a distorted view of Christianity. The same could be said, though to a lesser degree, of the view of God of the first-century Sadducees, as well as the Samaritan woman, and (to an even lesser degree) the fifth-century Pelagian heretics—not to mention a lot of the medieval Scholastics.
The question is whether the presence of these heretical beliefs (and what degree of heresy in them) demands that we say, “You are worshipping a different God.” Clearly, the Apostles did not say that about the first-century Jews who rejected the Trinity (even though Jesus said their father was the devil!). And Jesus did not tell the Samaritan woman in her ethnic, works-righteousness distorted view of God that she was worshipping a different God, either. Instead, he insisted that she was worshipping him incorrectly and seeking salvation wrongly. And I’ve never heard anyone say that the Pelagian heretics worship a different God, even though they have been regarded (rightly) as heretics.
At the same time, Paul never said, “Zeus’s real name is Jehovah,” as if the Greeks were worshipping the true God wrongly. So, the question is: is the Muslim view of Allah more like that of Zeus or of the Samaritan woman’s heretical conception of God? That’s a tough question, and one that we need to let the context determine. For instance, many Christians find the use of “Allah” more misleading than helpful. For them, “Allah” falls in the “Zeus” category.
On the other side, however, are many faithful Christians working among Muslims who approach the question of Allah much like Jesus corrected the Samaritan woman. “You are seeking to worship the one God, but you are wrong in your view of him, and wrong in how you seek salvation from him. Salvation is from the Jews.” In my time with Muslims over the years, I’ve found that to be a more helpful starting place. This isn’t driven by a desire to be politically correct, but by a desire to start where Muslims are, and to bring them to faith in the one and only Son of God, Jesus.
When talking with Muslims about the gospel, we need to eliminate any unnecessary distractions. The necessary ones, after all, will be tough enough. We must view Muslims with charity, refusing to pigeonhole them. We live in a world of stereotypes, but love can overcome what political correctness can’t. To listen to someone without prejudice is the beginning of loving them. In other words, “Do unto others” applies here as well: let’s see others as they would like to be seen.
Be sure to see Monday’s post as well, “Muslim Misconceptions About Christians.” Both posts are modified from my Breaking the Islam Code.