This article appeared first in our exclusive Premium online content channel and is part of a series focusing on Seventh-day Adventism’s relationship with those of other world religions. We reprint it here as a service to our subscribers.—Editors.
He was an Egyptian imam named Mohamed, and if an email can exude warmth, his did. “We welcome all visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he wrote. Any lingering questions I had about the openness of his mosque dissolved as I continued to read. “Welcome again to you, your friends, your family, and anyone who would like to come with you. I am so happy that I will have a new friend. . . . Like it is said, ‘Friendship is a treasure.’ ”
This Muslim man’s hospitable response to a Seventh-day Adventist might be surprising to some of us. Many Christians believe that Islam is antagonistic toward Christianity and that Christians and Muslims would struggle to find common ground. Some might even suggest that the imam’s friendly response was deceptive and hid sinister motives.
A thoughtful Adventist who isn’t very familiar with Islam should probably step back, however, and ask themselves at least two questions. First, what do Muslims actually believe? Second, how should a faithful Seventh-day Adventist build relationships with the Muslims around them? This article will provide introductory answers to these two questions.1
As we begin, however, it’s important to remind ourselves that Islam is a diverse faith, practiced in very different ways in different parts of the world. It is also a religion with depth that cannot be easily described or appreciated by outsiders. So we will proceed with caution, reminding ourselves that a brief article cannot cover everything that is important. We should also remind ourselves that if we really want to know what an individual Muslim believes, we should ask them!
Islam is the fastest growing of the major world religions. Experts predict that it will overtake Christianity as the largest world religion within the next 50 years. Presently, about one fourth of the world identifies as Muslim.2 “Islam” and “Muslim” both come from the same Arabic root word, which carries the dual meaning of “submission” and “peace.” Based simply on the name, then, a Muslim is one who lives peacefully and in submission to God.
Muslims believe there is only one God. He created our world in six days and rules the universe with justice and compassion. God is greater than anything we can imagine, and nothing can be compared to Him. He is near to us and hears and responds to our prayers. Muslims, along with Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, all refer to God with the same title, Allah, which literally means “the God” in Arabic.
According to Islam, God has sent many messengers and prophets to humanity throughout history. Many of the men recognized as prophets in Islam are familiar to Jews and Christians. For example, Muslims accept Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, David, Jonah, John the Baptist, and Jesus as prophets of God. For Muslims, Muhammad (A.D. 570-632) is the last of God’s messengers.
Like Christians, Muslims believe that Jesus was born to the virgin Mary. They also believe that Jesus was a great healer who gave sight to the blind, healed lepers, and raised the dead. While Muslims believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they do not view Jesus as the divine Son of God.
Islam teaches that God has revealed His will through holy books. These include the Torah (given to Moses), the Psalms (given to David), the Gospel (given to Jesus), and the Qur’an (given to Muhammad). Of these four holy books, most Muslims view the Qur’an as the only revelation that remains uncorrupted. They see it as the literal, perfect word of God. Christians who read the Qur’an are often surprised to find that approximately one third of the Qur’an deals with characters and stories that are also recorded in the Bible.
Islam teaches that our world is moving toward a final and fearful day of judgment. Muslims expect there to be a time of trouble, with various signs indicating the approach of the last day. These signs include the appearance of a false messiah and the return of Jesus. Then, on the last day, the sky will be split, a trumpet will sound, and those who have died will be raised with new bodies to be judged. Those who have submitted to God, believed in the oneness of the Creator, and practiced good deeds will be welcomed into Paradise, while unbelievers will be sent to a fiery hell.
While the beliefs we have just introduced are important to Muslims, the more central focus of daily life is the faithful practice of what are called the Five Pillars of Islam.
One: Recitation of the Creed
Conversion to Islam takes place when someone, with sincerity, states the central confession of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” This recitation articulates the essence of Islam and is recited 17 times each day by a devout Muslim.
Muslims are expected to pause for prayer at five specified times each day. Prior to prayer they must perform a ritual washing of hands, mouth, nose, face, ears, and feet. Then for the prayer to be valid, they must face the Ka’bah (a small cubical structure in Mecca) and follow a prescribed sequence of movements (standing, kneeling, bowing) and recitations.
Islam’s emphasis on caring for widows, orphans, and poor people is demonstrated by the requirement that all Muslims give a minimum of 2.5 percent of their assets (not their income) to charity each year.
Muslims believe that Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad in a series of revelations. In remembrance of the first of these revelations, Muslims are expected to fast from all food and liquids during daylight hours for the entire lunar month of Ramadan.
All Muslims, if health and finances allow, are expected to go to the holy city of Mecca before they die. This pilgrimage takes place during the last month in the Muslim calendar and involves a reenactment of various events from the lives of Abraham and Muhammad. During the pilgrimage rich and poor all wear a simple garment, demonstrating the equality and unity of all who follow the God of Abraham.
This quick overview of Islam may have brought a few surprises. While there are many points of difference between Islam and Christianity, there is also much that is shared, especially between Muslims and Adventists. Adventist scholar William Johnsson noted some of these areas of similarity and argued that these commonalities “uniquely position Adventists” to build meaningful friendships with Muslims.3
So now that we’ve briefly described some of the beliefs and practices of Muslims, we must address specifically how these meaningful friendships can be built.
The first and most important step is to pray. We can ask for God to give us a genuine love for everyone, including Muslims. We can also pray for discernment, the blessing and guidance of the Holy Spirit, humility, and the gift of hospitality.
Second, we should remember that actions speak louder than words. This is especially true in a Muslim context. A Muslim who takes their faith seriously will feel more at home with us if we also clearly place God at the center of our lives. Muslims expect that a godly person will pray regularly, be generous to poor individuals, give wise advice, dress modestly, know their scriptures, speak about God and the prophets with respect, and be hospitable. Such a person is seen as honorable, and this then forms the basis of a godly friendship.
Third, it is important to establish a clear identity. This may seem like a simple task, but when one speaks with a Muslim, it may be confusing and even misleading to identify as a Christian. In the minds of many Muslims, Christians worship three gods, drink alcohol, eat pork, are immodest, and use “grace” as an excuse to ignore God’s law and live immoral lives.
So instead of immediately using the title “Christian,” we might consider more detailed and accurate ways of identifying ourselves to Muslims. For example, we might say, “I am an Adventist. We are a worldwide movement that believes Jesus will return to earth soon. We believe in God and in the last days. We abstain from that which is impure, such as alcohol and pork, and we believe our lives should be lived in submission to God and His will.” This response will likely bring joy to Muslims and open doors for future conversations because these are all points of commonality between Muslims and Adventists!
Fourth, if we seek friendships with Muslims, we might consider visiting a local mosque. It is wise to contact them beforehand to ask if it is appropriate. If we do this, we may even be greeted and hosted by the imam or another senior community member. We should dress modestly and nicely, cover our head with a scarf if we are a woman, and prepare for our visit by doing some preliminary research on typical practices and expectations associated with a mosque. While at the mosque, we may appropriately ask our hosts what they believe about the return of Jesus and how we can prepare to receive Him.
Fifth, we must be willing to give and receive hospitality. Hospitality is a central value in Islam and in the Bible. We are told to “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2, ESV). We should note that this is not a call to receive friends or to invite
fellow Adventists for lunch after church. It is a countercultural call to welcome, feed, nurture, and give of ourselves so that the alien, or stranger, feels welcomed and honored. But how can we be good hosts—and good guests? Adventists, particularly in the so-called Western world, may need special help in this area.
While these practical tips for engaging with Muslims may seem overwhelming, we shouldn’t feel intimidated. When I asked a Muslim woman what she wanted Christians to know, she said, “That we need them. I want to encourage them to speak to us, even if their questions may seem offensive. We want to speak—this is the only way to break the cycle of fear among us. We will love to have them for tea and to show them another face of Islam.”5
I met John on one of my trips. I had been asked to speak to Christians who were dealing with the influx of Muslims in their city. John was visibly upset by what was happening. “Those people don’t belong here!” he said at least three times.
Finally I responded. “John, what if ‘those people’ are guests of God?”
A year later we met again. John eagerly shared that after our first conversation, he felt convicted to seek God’s forgiveness and confront his own fear. Then he reached out to a Pakistani family that he had been avoiding even though they lived next door. A beautiful friendship blossomed on the spot, where distrust and fear had previously prevailed. John described his journey of reconciliation as a move from seeing Muslims as “others” to accepting them as “brothers.”
Later in the friendship the Muslim family confessed to John how surprised they were that he prayed before meals. They were also shocked to discover that Jesus never commanded anyone to worship His mother, Mary. John had seen them as threatening intruders. They had seen him as an immoral idol worshipper. What a joy it was for both to discover that they were wrong!
Clearly God can work through us despite our imperfections and our fears. Let us ask God to fill our hearts with love for all people. Let us practice biblical hospitality. Let us learn, share, and listen. And may our gracious God continue to make a way for enemies to become friends, because what the imam said in his email is true: Friendship is a treasure.
1 This jointly authored article draws freely from a more comprehensive and detailed book by the same authors that is available through AdventSource. See Paul Dybdahl and Gabriela Phillips, Islam: Facts, Fictions, and Familiarities (Lincoln, Nebr.: AdventSource, 2018).
2 Pew Research, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Apr. 2, 2015, available at https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/, accessed Aug. 30, 2022.
3 William G. Johnsson, “Adventists and Muslims: Five Convictions,” Adventist World—NAD, February 2010, p. 12.
4 For more information on how to respond to some of the challenging questions Muslims ask Christians, see Dybdahl and Phillips, pp. 71-75.
5 Ibid., p. 62.