A couple of years ago, I called my local cell phone provider to ask a question about my service agreement. I was greeted by a voice who said, “Good afternoon, this is Mo. How can I help you?” Having lived in North Africa and the Middle East for several years, I immediately detected Mo’s familiar accent. I made a mental note to make an in-person visit to the store to follow up.
When I arrived at the branch, my hunch was proven correct. Mo was a young Palestinian man whose full name was Muhammad. I greeted him with a traditional Arabic greeting. His eyes popped wide open, and we became fast friends. In fact, that year when Ramadan came around, I stopped in at the store to wish him a happy Ramadan, and he invited me to an iftar (breaking of the daily fast) at his local mosque.
Taking a student from one of my classes along with me, I drove up to the building, found the doors open to a sort of fellowship hall, and sat down at a table with some of Muhammad’s family and friends. The student and I were warmly embraced, treated to delicious food, and engaged in conversation for the next several hours as people took turns coming to sit with the guests.
Midway through the meal, one of the older members of the family came and joined us, and quickly the conversation shifted to him asking us what we thought about Islam. It was apparent that most of the intention he had was to show how the welcome that we had enjoyed in this mosque and from this community stands in contrast to the stereotypes that unfortunately often linger about Muslims and terrorism. However, at one point, the gentleman began comparing Islamic theology to what he saw as flaws in Christian logic.
Sitting at a dinner table as a guest in the middle of a holiday celebration, the student who had joined me told me afterwards that he felt overwhelmed by the pressure of whether to engage this gentleman’s arguments or to change the conversation. Yet, my experience of living in the Middle East for several years informed me that this type of pointed confrontation over key differences in our respective theologies and understandings of history was neither hostile nor to be avoided.
This older gentleman and I went back and forth for twenty minutes or so on the person and work of Jesus according to both of our faiths. In the end, neither of us had changed our understandings. But—much to the surprise of the watching student—we eventually returned to the friendly conversation and banter that we had been engaged in prior to reaching an impasse on our views of Jesus.
On the drive home, this student had many questions as he reflected on what he had observed. One of the central things he noted, however, was how that conversation—where both the older gentleman and I were deeply invested in incompatible views about who Jesus is—was direct but not offensive.
In this essay, I want to help you think through how to have some of those conversations that neither ask you to compromise your convictions nor result in being a jerk.
In fact, for my Christian readers, I argue that your favorite people to disagree with will likely be Muslims. I want to encourage you to become someone who Muslims are willing to disagree with as well. To do that, I will share three ways to avoid being “that guy” who believes that he has won an argument, while losing a relationship. I also want to share three tips that can help you identify where you disagree and clarify why you believe what you believe.
How to Avoid Being a Jerk
If you go to YouTube or some other online media platform and type in “Muslim Christian Debate,” you can take a deep dive down the rabbit hole of approaches to Christian engagement with Islam. I will state at the outset, I do not doubt the intentions of many of the apologists who feature on street corners and on their own Internet outlets who are calling out what they see as the inconsistencies of Islam. I believe most of them are fully convinced of the truth of the Christian message and want to see their Muslim friends come to understand and believe it. Transparently, I want the same thing as they do.
The problem, however, is that for every story of someone who responded positively to their approach, one can find fifty people who were turned off to Christians and their message as a result of someone taking this combative, public approach. While it is likely that your Muslim friends will be more willing to debate about theological convictions than most of your other friends, that does not necessarily mean the debate posture is the most effective way to know, understand, love, and communicate with one another.
With that in mind, I will offer the following three pieces of advice as you enter into discussions that will likely include disagreement over your respective beliefs. First, consider the context of your interaction, and minimize the potential for embarrassment. Second, avoid assuming you know what your Muslim friend believes and thinks. And third, avoid the tactic of trying to win points by associating your Muslim neighbor with the worst examples of whatever point you are trying to make. Let me explain a bit more about these three recommendations.
a. Consider Your Context
We live in a world in which we will regularly interact with people who hold to a variety of different worldviews and religious convictions. As we naturally rub shoulders with people from all different walks of life, confrontation and conflict are inevitable and unavoidable. If we truly want to respect one another, we must avoid the temptation to try to paper over differences. If we attempt to blunt the corners of everyone’s faith so as to make them compatible, we end up disrespecting the actual claims that each faith makes.
My Christian convictions—which, in full disclosure, I do want everyone else to share—cannot be relegated to some corner of our multi-faith conversation. Likewise, for most of my Muslim friends, their Islamic convictions cannot be sidestepped either. If we are to encourage one another to retain our convictions rather than papering over them, we will inevitably come to places where our most deeply held beliefs are in conflict with the most deeply held beliefs of others.
Have you ever experienced public confrontation or correction? Maybe it was during your school days. Maybe you piped up and gave a wrong answer in class and your teacher corrected you in front of your classmates. Or maybe it was at work, where your boss pointed out a mistake in front of your coworkers. How did you feel? Like you wanted to curl up in a ball and hide somewhere?
If we change the power dynamics in the scenario, you might find that you would have a different response. What if it was not a teacher or a boss who offered the correction but a friend or a peer who contradicted something you said in front of a group? Especially if you were not convinced that you were wrong, you might find yourself responding more aggressively and angrily in this situation. And that anger and aggression might lead you away from seeing the validity of your friend’s initial critique.
This might be a good time for an illustrative story. At one point while we were living in North Africa, I was hanging out at a local coffee shop with several of my Muslim friends. The conversation turned to the Christian claim that Jesus is God. One of the guys—we’ll call him Mustafa—started pressing into what he thought was a convincing line of argument to prove that Jesus wasn’t divine.
Reaching what he believed to be a crescendo in his argument, Mustafa asked, “If Jesus was God, why didn’t he just come down from the cross like the people asked him to do to prove it?” Perhaps a bit too eagerly, I countered his question with a question of my own, “What would show his divinity more: if he pulled his arms and legs off of the nails holding him to the cross or if he emerged alive out of the tomb after having been killed?”
The conversation went on from there, and I didn’t think anything more of it until a few days later when one of Mustafa’s friends pulled me aside and explained that Mustafa had been deeply embarrassed by feeling publicly bested in our conversation. He let me know that Mustafa was going to withdraw from our English school as a result. No matter what type of a relationship dynamic you might have with your Muslim friend, finding ways to disagree that minimize the exposure to shame or embarrassment is going to be key.
This does not mean that you refuse to answer questions in public settings. Rather, it simply is an encouragement to make sure that in your “debate,” you protect the other person’s dignity even if your argument might prove more convincing. Winning an argument without care for the other person’s embarrassment can result in losing a relationship.
"I ARGUE THAT YOUR FAVORITE PEOPLE TO DISAGREE WITH WILL LIKELY BE MUSLIMS. I WANT TO ENCOURAGE YOU TO BECOME SOMEONE WHO MUSLIMS ARE WILLING TO DISAGREE WITH AS WELL."
b. Do Not Assume
When I was in grade school, one of my teachers made the assertion that “[w]hen you assume, you almost always make an ass out of you and me.” That sing-songy truism stuck with me for more reasons than merely the rush of hearing an adult cuss. I have repeatedly seen its truth validated in my cross-cultural interactions.
In preparing to live overseas in a Muslim-majority context as someone who grew up in a small town in the Midwest, I had a lot to learn before moving my family. I knew that to be true, so I dedicated myself to reading voraciously about Islam, the history of the Middle East, the countries that we would be living in, and the interactions between Christians and Muslims. Frankly, I learned a lot before going, and I am glad that I took the time to study.
However, I also found that when we arrived, I had to unlearn a good portion of what I thought I knew about my neighbors. One humorous example was that I had read that Muslims had a teaching about the ninety-nine names of God that included a secret name known only to the camel. Thinking myself clever, I remember having a conversation in which I confidently asked my Muslim friend, “What if the name that the camel knows for God turns out to be ‘Jesus’?” Instead of a mic-drop moment, my friend looked at me perplexed, trying to figure out why I was bringing camels into a discussion about religion.
Now, not only was that a foolish and flawed tactic to try theologically from a Christian standpoint, but it was also weird to my Muslim friend who had no idea what I was talking about regarding a name known only to a camel. After I explained what I thought I knew, he laughed at me for weeks. He couldn’t get over how laughable it was that I thought that the goofy story I had read was accurate to his convictions. I very quickly learned my lesson regarding assumptions.
This particular example of faulty assumptions did not do anything to affect the relationship apart from making me the butt of my friend’s jokes for a few weeks. However, there are many times when acting out of your assumptions can lead you to say or do things that either cause offense or obscure communication. When you assume things about what Muslims believe, you miss the opportunity to hear them explain their beliefs for themselves. Having a person share with you beliefs about a particular topic or idea is both a relationship-building opportunity and a chance to make sure that when you are conversing, you are doing so on the basis of your friend’s actual beliefs rather than your assumed construction of what your friend thinks.
c. Avoid Ad Hominem
The temptation to paint our opponents in the worst light is not a recent human trajectory. We have been making strawmen out of those who disagree with us since Adam accused his wife of leading him astray. However, since the invention of the smartphone, social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have given people rapid and unfiltered access to mass communication outlets. The access to these platforms has increased the available avenues for human interaction, but it has also shaped how we interact. Today, if you find someone making a statement that goes viral on Twitter, it only takes about half a day before someone in the comments has reacted to that opinion by comparing that person to Hitler, Putin, Marx, or some other villain.
The thrust of the accusation has little to do with the respondent’s ability to engage with the idea espoused in the original message. Rather, such an approach to engagement simply takes the easy road of associating the opinion holder with someone everyone hates. If such an association can be made, then the person making the original claim will be viewed as villainous, and we will not have to engage with that person’s ideas.
Throughout the history of Christian-Muslim dialogue—even before the dawn of social media—there has been an unfortunate trail of these types of engagements. Christians have been accused of reenacting the crusades when they have raised questions about the propriety of building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Towers memorial. Likewise, Muslims who have celebrated the election of Muslim officials have been accused of wanting to impose Taliban-type sharia in the US.
Such rancor and rhetoric may enrage a particular tribe that is already inclined toward your cause, but it does nothing to address the actual people or arguments being presented in the public square for consideration. Even if the other person gets shut down, such a tactic dodges the argument rather than winning it. Furthermore, this approach is unbecoming of a Christian who is called to Christlikeness and neighbor love.
Now, as soon as I say “neighbor love,” some will assume that I am proposing a spineless abdication of willingness to disagree with someone. But hear me clearly: you can love your neighbor deeply and truly while disagreeing essentially and profoundly. In fact, I would argue that if we do not clarify where we differ, we do our neighbors the disservice of truly allowing them to know us or seeking to know them. It behooves us, then, to move on to discussing how we maintain our charity and neighbor love while recognizing that our faith commitments are irreconcilable at the most important points.
2. How to Clarify Where You Part Ways
In the broader Western culture in which we live, it seems as though we have lost the ability to disagree. As a society, it seems as though we oscillate between assuming that disagreement is hate or making our tertiary issues of disagreement so central that we completely disassociate with one another. It seems as though no one is allowed to disagree with another person’s deeply held beliefs without being labeled a bigot or being accused of hate speech. Thus, when we meet a person with whom we can engage in genuine, heartfelt disagreement without sacrificing the relationship, it is a breath of fresh air.
In all of my experiences with Muslims, I have found friends and neighbors with whom I can discuss some of my most deeply held convictions about God, faith, salvation, and hope. They have likewise been willing to share their own deeply held beliefs. It is a great honor to be entrusted with that type of insight into a person’s hopes, dreams, and commitments. Recognizing that conversations of this nature involve such vulnerability develops gratitude even where disagreements are uncovered.
When your conversations lead to these deep places, I would encourage you not to shy away from leaning into the central places where Christian faith confronts Islamic faith, and vice versa. If both Muslims and Christians are convinced that their most deeply held beliefs are the key to pleasing the Creator, then it would be truly unloving to refuse to address them, even when they result in challenging the other’s beliefs.
Having provided three suggestions about how to avoid being a jerk, let me also provide three suggestions for how to handle those points of disagreement. After all, this is where this essay’s discussion of apologetics gets most pertinent. The second half of this essay, then, will urge you to ask clarifying questions, seek to define key terms, and use Scripture to explain and defend theology.
a. Ask Questions and Listen
Cross-cultural communication is really hard. On top of learning a new language—a daunting enough task in itself—local customs, idioms, and conventions of speech all contribute to making true communication incredibly difficult. Trying to achieve nuance in a second language about everyday things is difficult enough. But when you are shooting for precision in your discussion about God and his nature, the task is even more daunting. You need to be ever aware of the fact that you might mean something that your word choice or social location is failing to convey clearly. As a result, when my wife and I lived overseas, we found ourselves asking tons of clarifying questions.
This happened to me in a very tangible, everyday way, when one of my friends wanted to buy my car. One day, my friend made a passing comment to me about looking for a vehicle to purchase. I knew he had been looking, so it didn’t seem out of place when he went on to give some specific details about the type of vehicle he was looking for. Those details ended up describing the car that I owned and which I had mentioned I would be selling at some point in the future. I told him that I would be on the lookout for something that fit those criteria for him, and I dropped the subject.
The next time we spent time together, he asked me what I liked about our car. I gave him a few details but told him that I wasn’t sure it had much more life in it. I was beginning to pick up on the fact that he had an eye on my car, but I was uncomfortable selling it to him because I didn’t want to be in a situation where it died on him and he blamed me for selling him a lemon. So, I started telling him that I was not sure if I would sell it after all. Over the next few times we met together, he started throwing out numbers of how much money he would be prepared to pay for a car like mine. Irritated that he didn’t seem to be picking up on the fact that I was uninterested in selling him my car, I said, “I am sure I could get more than that if I sold it elsewhere; and besides, I think I am just going to hang on to it and drive it into the ground.” Again, the conversation seemed to drop, and I was happy it did.
A week later, however, he called me up and said that he had arranged to borrow some extra money and he could pay what I thought I could get on the open market for the car. Frustrated, I told him that I would not sell him the car for any price.
He and I both left that conversation confused and hurt. I was confused and hurt that he kept pressing the issue to buy the car that I was clearly telling him I didn’t want to sell him. He left confused and hurt because from his vantage point, I had led him through the negotiation process only to reject his efforts to accrue enough money to cover what he understood to be my stated price. The words we were using were clear, but the way we viewed the world and the way that we understood the process of buying and selling in our cultures differed enough to confuse our conversation over something as simple as coming to an agreement on a car sale.
Though this conversation was taking place in my second language and in a cultural context that was not where I grew up, it is not the only place that context affects communication. Sometimes it is even harder to detect miscommunication in our first language. When we find ourselves having conversations in the same language with people who grew up with us on the same block, it is less obvious that there may yet be cultural distance that needs to be spanned before mutual understanding is accomplished. This is especially the case when having conversations with people whose faith shapes their outlook on the world and their understanding of religious terminology differently than ours.
"IF BOTH MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS ARE CONVINCED THAT THEIR MOST DEEPLY HELD BELEIFS ARE THE KEY TO PLEASING THE CREATOR, THEN IT WOULD BE TRULY UNLOVING TO REFUSE TO ADDRESS THEM, EVEN WHEN THEY RESULT IN CHALLENGING THE OTHER'S BELIEFS."
In English, we often conflate many religious words to their Christian counterparts due to the broad influence of Judeo-Christian culture. We often use the word “sin” in English to interpret multiple different words in Hebrew and Greek. We do the same with the words available in Arabic to describe different elements of sin. While it makes it easier to have a single word that covers the gamut of misdeeds across multiple religions, it also flattens the nuance that each faith might bring to the understanding of what makes a misdeed sinful.
Further complicating this particular example of the idea of sin, both Muslims and Christians would recognize many of the same activities and actions as sinful. Our ethics parallel one another in many significant ways. Thus, when we use the word “sin” to describe something that our neighbor also would describe as sinful, we reinforce the idea that we both mean the same thing when we say “sin.” This assumption, however, can lead us away from exploring the very different effects of and remedy for sin in Islam and Christianity.
In order to ensure that we know what other people mean by those key terms, it is wise to ask them to tell you what they mean when they speak of sin, forgiveness, God, and so on. Likewise, it can be helpful to restate key ideas as you hear them. For instance, don’t just listen to what they are saying—ask questions to make sure you know what they intend to communicate. As pedantic and nitpicky as it may seem to ask for definitions—especially when you are speaking in a shared language—it will convey your desire to truly hear what they're saying.
b. Seek Definitions and Clarify
For clarity’s sake, it might be worth considering just a few examples of what I mean by asking clarifying questions in the previous section. As one example, we could consider the host of apparently shared characters that both Muslims and Christians recognize. Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all appear to have a role in both Christianity and Islam. However, before we assume that we both call to mind the same stories and roles when we refer to these characters, it is important to recognize the distinct narratives and purposes within the plots of Islam and Christianity.
In an effort to seek understanding, then, it is important to ask for clarification before assuming shared ideas. When Muslim friends tell you that they believe in Abraham or Jesus, it is worth asking them to tell you the story that comes to mind when they think of those characters. In discussing or even reading some of the stories of the prophets, it is likely that both you and your friends will discover some significant differences.
Another place that this sort of clarification is important is in the use of key theological terms. For example, for many Muslims whom I have engaged with, “sin” is a word that describes the action of someone who has either failed to remember God’s law or refused to submit one’s will to God. Initially, I would not find a lot of difference in that description from what I understand sin to be as a Christian. It would be easy to move on from there and assume that our conceptions of sin and sins’ effects are similar.
However, when I have gone on to share that I believe that sin is a violation of God’s law that results in a broken relationship between humans and God, most of my Muslim friends have quickly noted that we conceive of sin differently. They have either rebuffed me for thinking that humanity could ever have an intimate relationship with God or have clarified that they do not think that sin has so radically disrupted our lives. While this difference over the nature and effects of sin may seem like a minor difference, it sets the two faiths on divergent trajectories. If we want to truly understand one another, it is necessary to clarify those places where we might use common language but mean different things.
But for the Christian who is not merely content to acknowledge the places where our paths part ways, it is also important to be ready to share why the biblical portrait is so compelling. Inevitably, these sorts of conversations involve a host of questions that we are often eager to answer theologically. However, I encourage you to resist answering all of your Muslim neighbor’s questions with ready theological answers. That may seem odd for an essay on apologetics. However, I think there is a better and more beautiful way for us to present an apologetic defense for our faith—and that is by answering our friends’ questions primarily with invitations to discover them in Scripture.
c. Read Scripture and Show
This essay has been working out the implications of engaging in apologetic-framed conversations. While I do think that apologetics is a helpful and important discipline, I also think that sometimes our preconceived ideas of what apologetics is can fight against a meaningful engagement with our conversation partners. What I mean by that is when we are having a discussion with someone who is pressing us with philosophical or theological questions about our faith, we are often tempted to defend and answer those questions according to the theological and philosophical categories. We think that apologetics necessitates debate.
By nature, apologetics is a dialogue around differences; but despite the condition of disagreement, the defense of a person’s faith need not require a podium and a moderated public argument. It need not even involve raised voices and tension. Instead, offering a defense for the logical legitimacy of Christian convictions can be something that occurs more naturally, conversationally, and dialogically. And the best environment to foster such a discussion—especially between two parties who believe in divine revelation—is in the source of authority to which one appeals for truth.
On one hand, this will require a Christian to be deeply familiar with the Bible. But on the other hand—as one who believes that the Spirit who inspired the Bible is also active in illuminating hearts as people read it—I’d rather have my Muslim friend encounter the source of my arguments than to rely on my own polish and presentation of biblically dislocated arguments. Below are just a few examples of places that I encourage you to invite your Muslim friends to read with you as they raise questions about the Christian faith.
Jesus as the Son of God: John 1:1–18; 8:58–59
This passage presents a biblical foundation for demonstrating to our Muslim friends why we are so keen to identify Jesus as God from the text of Scripture. This passage allows us to show the tension between having one who is the Word who can be said to both be God and be with God from the beginning. While this introduces the mystery of the Trinity, it also demonstrates from the text why Christians are compelled to believe in a God who is one in essence (Deut. 6:4) and three in persons (Matt. 28:19). The second John passage has Jesus claiming to predate Abraham, laying claim to the divine name “I AM,” and the crowds immediately recognizing his claim to divinity with an attempt to stone him.
Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection: John 10, 19; Luke 24
John 10 presents one of the many instances where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. In addition, he notes that it is his intention to lay down his life and connects it to his perfect submission to God’s will to achieve salvation. Likewise, in John 19, having recorded the events of the crucifixion, John demonstrates that it is a fulfillment of prior prophecy. And finally, Luke 24 includes Jesus’s own affirmation that the Scriptures point to his suffering, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’s Substitutionary Atonement: Hebrews 7–10
This is a more substantial section of Scripture that will take some time to work through, but it explains so well how the Levitical sacrificial system was merely the shadow and prepared us to understand Christ as the fullness of all that came before. It shows how Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension allow him to serve as both the eternal sacrifice and the perpetual high priest. This justly forgives human sin, bearing its penalty away in his death, and offers us a perfect cleansing in the offering of his blood. Forgiven and cleansed, believers can now enter the holy and righteous presence of God without danger. As he has repeatedly declared his intention to do, God can dwell with restored humanity without destroying them by his holy presence.
The Trinity: Matthew 28:18–20
While this passage is usually discussed in terms of missions and disciple making, it is a key place to see that Jesus instructs people to be baptized in the singular name of the three persons of the Godhead. The weighty concept of bearing a person’s name is connected to becoming a follower of the covenanting Creator who is known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Surely, more questions will arise as you work through the texts of Scripture suggested above. This should not be understood as a comprehensive list of airtight arguments. But what it provides is a starting place to begin to show that your answers to theological questions emerge from Scripture, not from mere philosophical commitments or personal opinion. At the very least, your Muslim friend is likely to respect your appeal to a source of authority beyond yourself as you point to, read, and explain Scripture. In the end, I can’t think of a better posture for apologetics than sitting together reading the Bible and asking what it means for our lives.
"AS ONE WHO BELIEVES THAT THE SPIRIT WHO INSPIRED THE BIBLE IS ALSO ACTIVE IN ILLUMINATING HEARTS AS PEOPLE READ IT, I'D RATHER HAVE MY MUSLIM FRIEND ENCOUNTER THE SOURCE OF MY ARGUMENTS THEN TO RELY ON MY OWN POLISH AND PRESENTATION OF BIBLICALLY DISLOCATED ARGUMENTS."
For many Christians, the idea of apologetics often conjures up and assumes a certain posture of debate and possibly even an air of arrogance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I hope that in this essay you have been encouraged that it is possible to enter into a discussion with your Muslim friends knowing that you disagree on fundamental issues, being willing to surface and address those differences, and also avoiding being a jerk as you do so.
I also hope that as you prepare to have these kinds of discussions, that you are aware of how dependent upon the Lord you are for guidance, clarity, and precision in your answers. And I pray that you also walk away with a sense of how important it is to be familiar with your Bible so as to help others sit under its teaching with you in finding answers to their questions.
May it be that the Lord would raise up a generation of those who are fully convinced of the beauty and truth of the gospel, who are compassionately committed to friendship with their Muslim neighbors, and who are granted a myriad of opportunities to provide a compelling reason for the hope they have in the forgiveness and adoption found in the biblical Jesus.
Matthew Bennett is an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University, where he has been teaching since 2017. Prior to that, he spent six years as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. He is the author of several books, including Hope for American Evangelicals, The Qur’an and the Christian, and 40 Questions about Islam, and has written for numerous publications.