CHRISTIAN STRANGENESS: HOW DEEP DIFFERENCES SHAPE FAITH & FRIENDSHIP
Despite being born and raised in the United States, I had never had much experience with Christians—at least not as Christians. I knew that some of my classmates came from a Christian background and perhaps occasionally attended a local church, but I don’t really remember Christianity—as a faith and as a commitment to Christ—being discussed. It was presumed to be present, but I couldn’t find it anywhere, not in any tangible sense.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this was odd. I knew of nothing else. It was only when I started spending more time in the Middle East that the contrast became apparent. In Egypt, my country of origin, Islam was in the air one breathed. It didn’t matter if you were religious or secular, and, in any case, those terms didn’t translate particularly well in a Muslim-majority context. Everyone used religious language, and even most of those who weren’t observant thought they should be.
It is easy to overstate the Arab world’s palpable religiosity, particularly when comparing the continued resilience of Islam with the decline of outward Christian observance in the United States and Western Europe. Of course, not everyone is religious. The point here, however, is that the social desirability of piety still predominates. In Tunisia, home to arguably the most secularized Arab society, 99 percent of respondents said in 2020 that God plays an “important role” in their life, while 97 percent said the same for prayer. Of course, many of these Tunisians were not quite telling pollsters the truth, but this only underscores the point.
As I shuttled back and forth between the United States and various Arab countries, the contrasts between how Islam and Christianity were translated by their adherents into everyday gestures and movements fascinated me more and more. In a sense, I grew up thinking that both Islam and Christianity were “strange.” The former was, in fact, numerically strange, with only about one percent of the US population identifying as Muslim (and it must have been even less when I was growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the nineties). The latter was ostensibly the dominant, majority religion, but in the northeastern liberal elite enclaves of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC, Christians might as well have felt as alienated as Muslims did.
After living in the Middle East from 2010 until 2014, during the height of the Arab Spring and the resulting religious polarization, I came back to Washington, DC, which is where I had been in those early, frightening days of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. I recall 9/11 feeling like a double tragedy, as an American of course, but also as a Muslim who couldn’t quite grasp how such atrocities could be committed in my name. At the time of the attacks, I was still only a freshman at Georgetown, a Catholic university. I saw the symbols of Christianity, but with the exception of a required undergraduate course called “The Problem of God,” I had little interaction with the Jesuits. They seemed like a relic of times past. Their unabashed ecumenism was greatly appreciated (at least by me)—particularly during a period of growing anti-Muslim sentiment—but it also had the effect of diluting the strangeness that their clerical garb might have otherwise suggested.
Nearly thirteen years later, I found myself in a very different America. The polls suggested that Americans were becoming even less religious. Counterintuitively, though, this had the effect of making religious polarization more explicit and noticeable. And I, for one, found myself noticing.
"I CAN RECALL MY SENSE OF WONDER. I HAD NEVER SEEN PEOPLE LOOKING DOWN, IN INTENSE CONTEMPLATION, PRAYING TOGETHER IN A STARBUCKS OF ALL PLACES. THIS WAS STRANGE, BUT I LIKED THAT IT WAS STRANGE"
Hemorrhaging White working-class voters, the Democratic Party had become increasingly urban and secularized, the province of well-educated elites. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, despite flashes of economic populism, retreated into the embrace of the Republican Party. In effect, one cleavage—a religious one—was overlaid on a partisan cleavage, amplifying both in the process. The more secular the dominant culture became, particularly in young, liberal cites, the stranger Christians appeared to be. They were holdouts. They could either find a way to minimize their differences with their surroundings by deemphasizing their distinctiveness, or they could take pleasure and pride in standing apart. Neither option was necessarily ideal. As an Evangelical friend put it to me once, “You only learn about the river when you try to swim against the flow.” Or perhaps more pessimistically, “It’s a dead fish that goes with the flow.”
As someone inclined to question premises—perhaps the legacy of my early years as the only Muslim in class and at the lunch table—I was drawn to what I increasingly recognized as Christian strangeness. Two particular moments are registered in my memory, banal in their ordinariness but meaningful for what they communicated to me as an outsider looking in. The first must have happened not too long after I returned to Washington in 2014. I was working on my laptop in a coffee shop. My earphones were off, and so snippets of conversations entered and then promptly exited my awareness. Except one conversation. Two young men, who might have otherwise been talking about their plans for the weekend, were instead saying a Christian prayer. I can’t recall the details, but I can recall my sense of wonder. I had never seen people looking down, in intense contemplation, praying together in a Starbucks of all places. This was strange, but I liked that it was strange.
The second moment also took place in Washington, as I was learning to see my new (and old) city with curious eyes. I had just become acquainted with the writing of the Catholic socialist writer Elizabeth Bruenig, who was then a columnist with the Washington Post. I started following her on Twitter and read her bio for the first time. She included a number of identifiers—some common ones like “mother”—but one of them struck me as unusual. It said “Christian,” and she had put that before anything else. I remember thinking to myself that I hadn’t seen this before. Now, I think I understand it.
My most proximate point of reference had been the Middle East. It would make little sense for a Muslim to identify publicly as such in a country like Egypt, Jordan, or Qatar. It went without saying that one would be Muslim, so why say it? You could be a certain kind of Muslim, but the simple fact of being Muslim, without adjectives, would have been utterly unremarkable.
What did it mean for one to announce themselves as Christian in a country where, until relatively recently, one’s Christian identity wouldn’t have needed asserting? For any Christian living in the secular city, it meant swimming against the river’s current, a current that had become inhospitable to the kind of proud Christian witness that had no interest in apologizing for itself.
These were only moments, however illustrative. To be sure, I could never truly be a part of this world. I wasn’t a believer. But something was drawing me closer, and I felt a genuine curiosity. Not only did I not know many actual Christians, I also realized I didn’t know much about Christianity as it actually existed.
That I had seen Islam so powerful and resonant during the Arab Spring made me think more about what makes religions distinctive. During those upheavals, from 2011 to 2013, the question of Islam’s appropriate place in public life and its relationship to the state fueled old and new political divisions. These foundational questions were existential, and they had never been resolved. Some Islamists believed that Islam and Islamic law should play a greater role in politics; and some liberals, secularists, and nationalists, while not necessarily wishing to privatize Islam, wanted to constrain and neutralize its influence in and on politics. This is what the great ideological battles of the Arab Spring were about. Most seemed to think that Islam should play some role in public life, but everyone seemed to disagree on the extent and contours of that role. There was also the question of who would determine that role, and under what authority.
As an American abroad, these debates were foreign in more than one sense. Barack Obama was still president. The notion that there would be a Trump era wasn’t even yet an impossibility, since to think something is impossible would require thinking about it in the first place. Back then, American debates were mostly about policy differences, over things like universal healthcare and marginal tax rates. They weren’t (yet) about what America was and what it meant to be American.
With this as the backdrop, the Middle East became a source of fascination as well as confusion for many Americans. Our politics were relatively staid and orderly. Their politics were ideological, foundational, and existential. What was it about Islam that made it such a point of contention for modern Muslims, and why had it come to play such an outsized role in politics in the first place? This became the topic of my second book, which I titled somewhat provocatively, Islamic Exceptionalism.
"THE QUESTION OF DAMNATION IS A TEST—AND A CLARIFYING ONE—OF HOW WE CAN LIVE AND LEARN ACROSS EVEN THE DEEPEST OF DIFFERENCES."
If I was going to argue that Islam was “exceptional,” I would have to contrast it with other religions, including, of course, Christianity. After all, to the extent that Islam seemed foreign to Americans, it was because their baseline was Christianity even if they themselves weren’t believers. I bought dozens of books of Christianity, its history, its theology, and its politics. I had gotten to know a young Christian theologian named Joshua Ralston over Twitter, and he was kind enough to indulge my many questions, guiding me on the straight path, so to speak. He reviewed my draft chapter on how Islam and Christianity’s relationship to politics and power had changed over time. This required me, among other things, to read parts of the New Testament (particularly the book of Galatians) and explore questions of biblical inerrancy (What do Christians mean when they say the Bible is the “word of God”?).
Little did I know that this would be only the beginning of my encounter with Christianity. After my book was published in 2016, my proudest moments were when readers would tell me that they thought I had captured essential features of Christianity as a Christian might understand them. It was also around this time that the Evangelical theologian Matthew Kaemingk sent me a serendipitous email. We hadn’t met before, and no one had put us in touch. Nonetheless, he chose to email me, introducing himself and telling me a bit about his work, which would soon be published as Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear.
In a different world, I might have missed his email or simply neglected to respond during what was a busy period. It probably helped that the subject line of his email was “A Christian Defense of Islam.” He wrote:
My work focuses on making a very specific argument to my fellow Christians. Namely, here are the practical, political, and theological reasons why you (as Christians) should defend Muslim immigrants and identity in the West.
I responded—how could I not?—and so began a friendship and intellectual collaboration that continues to this day. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that my friendship with Matthew has changed my life—not in the clichéd sense, but in the fuller sense of reorienting my own relationship to God and Islam. Learning about Christianity pushed me to learn more about Islam and to rediscover elements of Islam that had been obscured by history and politics.
Living—and Learning—across Deep Difference
Before I met Matthew, I understood that some differences were deep, in the sense that they weren’t based on mere differences of interpretation but rather on fundamentally divergent ways of perceiving the world. Like many Americans, however, I tended to think that there was enough in the American story that united us. We wouldn’t find ourselves torn apart, since there was still much that held us together. There was a shared history and a shared pride. Most of all, there was a belief in the American idea—akin, as some would have it, to a “civil religion.” I was wrong. And so the question of how to live with deep difference became more urgent here at home. I started to wonder if the Middle East’s convulsions over Islam had presaged a universal condition—that, across even the most advanced democracies, the nature of politics would enter onto an existential plane. Where elections were once about rotating power between opponents, now the very future of the Republic seemed to hang in the balance every four years (or even two).
When conservatives and liberals fight over politics, it can be easy to raise one’s hands up in consternation and lament the unreasonableness of either side, or both. What is less easy to appreciate is that, often, these fights are based on foundational divides that can’t necessarily be bridged through rational deliberation. On issues that are felt existentially, there may not in fact be a middle ground. It is one thing to split the middle on economic issues, which are tangible and measurable, but how does one split the middle of matters of faith and conviction—or when compromising politically might mean compromising one’s own personal relationship to God?
In such contexts, political divides are no longer merely political; they might as well be theological. Even if they have nothing to do with religion, they feel religious. But this almost gives religion a bad name, implying that religious passions are precisely the ones that are beyond reason. As some have argued, an attack on one’s religion can constitute an attack on the “inner soul” of believers. Similarly, political scientist Nathan Brown writes that “religious differences can be politically frightening because they seem so deep and so unfriendly to discussion and compromise … behind this nervousness about religion is a worry that ultimate truths are not open to argument, that religion breeds absolute thinking and even intolerance.
Indeed, religious divides may seem like this. Centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau captured the sense of salvific irreconcilability when he said that it was “impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” This sounds logical and intuitive enough, but is it right? When you consider it more carefully, the link between believing people damned and fighting or subjugating them because of their theological error is unclear at best. There is no religion that I’m familiar with that requires or expects everyone to be a particular religion. This would undermine the diversity and plurality that God made possible through the vastness and mystery of his creation. It would also render the question of salvation irrelevant. If everyone knew God’s truth, then there would be no cause for reward or punishment. If everyone had concluded that the Truth was true, then there would be no room for error or falsity—and without the possibility error, the truth would have nothing against which to make itself apparent.
For all their very real differences, both Christianity and Islam allow space for the freedom to choose between competing conceptions of the Good—that to be human is to use one’s intellectual faculties to search for what is true and to reach different conclusions accordingly. Without some semblance of free will, the structure of divine accountability collapses. If humans are not free to decide, then it would contravene logic to say they should be punished—or rewarded—for something they had no control over in the first place. Virtue only becomes virtuous if one chooses it over the wages of temptation or sin.
Of course, these questions—and their answers—are both speculative and debatable, and readers may disagree with aspects of my own assessment above. After all, one could argue that God is not “rational” in the sense I have described above, and that He can punish whomever he so chooses even if it contravenes what we mere mortals call “logic.” We can, however, approach Rousseau’s claim from a different and perhaps more fruitful angle. As a matter of historical record, we know that those for whom the adherents of other faiths are damned have lived in peace throughout history. Clearly, this is possible, as it was, for example, during the Abbasid Era in the Arab world or in Andalusia before the arrival of Ferdinand and Isabella. Not only was it possible, however, in many ways, it was more the norm than the exception. In their conservative and orthodox forms, adherents of both Christianity and Islam have tended to view those of other faiths as, if not damned outright, then at least less likely to be granted salvation. Before the modern era, this exclusivist position on salvation was not at all controversial. It was orthodoxy (and often still is, even if various caveats are added to diminish offense). But this orthodoxy, on its own, did not inexorably lead to religious suppression or violence.
Rather than something to dodge out of a desire to avoid unpleasantness, I think it is better to think of Rousseau’s warning as a kind of unlikely invitation. The question of damnation is a test—and a clarifying one—of how we can live and learn across even the deepest of differences. Presumably, there are few things more ultimate than eternity itself. What could be deeper than that?
The Strange Question of Religious Conversion
There is a story I often tell Christian and Muslim audiences. As I mentioned earlier, my book Islamic Exceptionalism was my attempt to come to terms with Islam’s inherent difference, a difference that seemed to me most stark relative to Christianity. I highlighted Islam’s distinctive attributes—its resistance to secularization, its outsized role in public life, and its provision of a legal order—as features rather than bugs. Muslims, themselves, took pride and pleasure in the fact that their religion offered up a contrast. To my pleasant surprise, Christians also by and large appreciated this point, since they took pride and pleasure in their distinctiveness relative to Islam, including Christianity’s emphasis on grace over law. (In Galatians, Paul says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” This was something that both Muslims and Christians could appreciate, but for nearly opposite reasons.) Because of these interventions into the fraught world of comparative theology, various evangelical groups wanted to hear what I had to say. Soon enough, I found myself speaking to a massive conference hall of around 1,800 evangelicals in Nashville, as part of a conference hosted by Q Ideas. I was, as far as I could tell, the only Muslim there, which was somewhat intimidating.
After I had spoken on a smaller panel, an older man came up to me and asked if he could shake my hand. I said, yes, of course. He then said that this was the first time in his over eighty years on this earth that he shook hands with a Muslim. I was amazed, and I was grateful. I smiled and thanked him. I must have beaming just a bit too much, because he quickly cautioned me. I appreciate what you had to say, he told me, but that doesn’t mean I think you can be saved without Christ. His meaning, however gingerly put, was clear enough: I would most likely face eternal damnation if I failed to convert. I remember feeling a tinge of irritation and even offense, but for whatever reason, I made a decision in the moment to push my frustrations to the side and reply with the same openness that he had extended to me. What ensued was an illuminating conversation, running the gamut from our respective theologies to my familial background and where I had grown up. It may sound odd, but there was something liberating about this encounter. He had his views, and I had mine. And that was fine.
On the most personal level, each of us probably has examples of familial relationships and friendships that illustrate the point even more profoundly. One of those friendships is my own with Matthew Kaemingk. In one of our Christian-Muslim dialogues before a predominantly evangelical audience at Wheaton College, a student asked how I felt about the fact that many evangelicals—including Matthew—want me to know Christ, embrace him as my savior, and anchor my life in his grace. I had no particular interest in converting Matthew to Islam, so I couldn’t entirely relate to the impulse. I was a bit stumped about how to appropriately respond, since I was well aware of the imbalance in my and Matthew’s perspectives. He was a small-e evangelical, and I wasn’t.
Frankly, I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that a dear friend, someone who knows me far better than the old man in Nashville, might wish for me to replace one set of foundational beliefs with another—to, in effect, become something other than what I am. This was a test. I understand it better now. Again, I had to suppress my own skepticism and open myself up to a different way of thinking. Matthew helped me. He joked that he was disappointed that I didn’t want to convert him to Islam: after all, if I believed Islam was true, why wouldn’t I want to share that truth with someone I cared about? I remember laughing at this. The disarming nature of humor aside, I had to concede that it was a good point. Regardless, my friendship with Matthew was premised on trying our best to understand one another. And if this is what Matthew believed, then I couldn’t expect him to suppress his own conviction and commitment as an evangelical who, by definition, had an interest in evangelizing.
Two Ways to Deal with Deep Difference
I think the lesson here is broader and much more consequential than what any individual relationship or conversation might suggest. There are two basic ways to deal with the fact of deep difference, a fact that cannot be undone in heterogenous societies, like ours, where diversity and plurality are baked into the fabric of everyday life. We might wish it were otherwise—because homogeneity seems easier—but that option is simply not available to us.
The first option, and the one that comes closest to reflecting an elite liberal consensus, is to constrain, limit, or otherwise privatize seemingly irreconcilable religious claims. Across Western democracies, this was the road well-traveled. To varying degrees, secular-liberal governments sought to empty public space of God. While secularism is often defined in institutional terms as the separation of church and state, secularism, in ideological terms, offers the more sweeping possibility of a life lived without the presence of God in our everyday social, political, and economic interactions.
The second option is to come to terms with religion’s role in public life, by letting it unspool without artificial restraints and by creating space for believers to express the fullest articulation of their religious conviction. This latter option, as my dialogues with Matthew have underscored time and time again, is preferable for any number of reasons. Sameness is not the same as goodness, and difference isn’t something to be papered over or transcended. Americans often emphasize consensus and unity, as if foundational disagreements are, themselves, a threat to social peace. But what if it was the other way around—that, in asking Americans to compartmentalize their beliefs, our ability to learn and live across difference slowly atrophies. These are skills, talents, and habits that must be nurtured.
To Be a Better Muslim
As a Muslim, I do not believe in the truth of Christianity’s creedal claims. At the same time—at the risk of sounding a bit fluffy—I have come to appreciate the beauty and power of the Christian idea. For example, I love the notion of “grace,” which I have always struggled to fully grasp, since it does not figure as prominently in Islamic discourse. When I hear it described by my Christian friends, I’m struck by the sense of mystery and paradox it so readily imparts. I may not share the theological premises that lead one to grace, but that shouldn’t prevent me from appreciating its power, specifically how it can transform the lives of those who give themselves over to it.
To appreciate the “other” in this way requires a posture of generosity and openheartedness. I think the New York Times’ Ezra Klein eloquently captured this spirit in a recent essay. Like me, Klein is not Christian, so he approaches Christianity with the distance of an observer, but this distance can be a strength.
What I, as an outsider to Christianity, have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.
Of course, one must be confident enough in their own faith to recognize the beauty of other faiths, otherwise they may see themself as making unreasonable concessions. If anything, though, this is an argument for encouraging people to find and express their deepest spiritual and religious convictions. They should and must be brought out as much as possible. We cannot have productive debates about the most difficult questions if we don’t know what it is we’re debating. We cannot appreciate the commitments of others without first knowing our own.
As in any bold endeavor, there is a risk that one party might approach the other in generosity in the expectation of a reciprocity that is never returned. Since Muslims are the smaller and often more vulnerable party, they are more likely to find beauty in Christianity than evangelicals are likely to find beauty (or some other positive attribute) in Islam. This, though, is a risk worth taking. One’s appreciation of another must be unconditional, otherwise both “sides” will find themselves waiting indefinitely.
Matthew, for example, did not know whether I would reciprocate when he sent me that first email. He did not know if Muslims would appreciate the book he wrote on Christian hospitality toward Muslim immigrants. He did not know what the reaction would be when he (controversially) argued that the hijab, or headscarf, was a blessing precisely because of its strangeness. He took a chance, just as I would take a chance in deciding to immerse myself in Christianity. The intellectual and spiritual benefits have been considerable, not just as someone who studies religion, but as a Muslim believer.
It was through Matthew that I became acquainted with a Dutch pastor and theologian—Abraham Kuyper—who would, somewhat to my surprise, have a profound impact on my own thinking about religion and politics. This has led some friends to joke that I am one of the world’s only “Islamic Kuyperians.” They may be on to something. Kuyper (d. 1920) was the preeminent exponent of what has come to be known as “Christian pluralism.” Christian pluralism sees the city of man as inherently broken and fallen from sin, which, in turn, means that politics must be acknowledged as a site of uncertainty and fragmentation rather than one of certainty and unity.
Perfection was possible, but it was not possible here. It would only come with the return of Christ. As Matthew writes in the book that introduced me to Kuyper’s thought: “True Christian pluralists release the reigns of national history…Any effort to preempt Christ’s unifying work, any effort to establish an immanent universal sanctuary on earth was completely out of bounds for those who recognized Christ’s temporal sovereignty.” In the meantime, until Christ returns and heals the divisions born out of man’s brokenness, there will be a multiplicity of faiths and ideologies.
All of this might seem too distinctly Christian and not necessarily applicable shorn of its Christ-centered premise. I might have thought the same years ago. When I read Kuyper for the first time, however, it simply rang true—as a Muslim. As someone who had seen political divides turn violent in the Middle East, it felt intuitive. Kuyper’s eloquent defenses of a principled pluralism gave me a new language with which to understand what I had seen and experienced and what I feared would come to pass in my own country, right here in America. More importantly, Christian pluralism sounded familiar, if not in its premises than in its implications. I was inspired to return to my own scripture and tradition to excavate Islam’s rich historical engagement with and insights on the question of living with deep difference. In so doing, I learned more than I ever could have expected. I found myself becoming more appreciative of my own faith and the (somewhat obscured) precedents it set long ago.
In matters of religion, history and theology, however important, can only take one so far. There is the everyday practice of becoming closer to God—or at least trying to—through rituals, prayer, and reflection. In Islam, one of those rituals, a pillar of the faith, is the holy month of Ramadan, which requires not just fasting from food but fasting from liquids of any kind, including, perhaps most tragically, coffee.
This past Ramadan, I was feeling more torn than usual between my Muslimness and the fact of the very secular world I inhabit—one that isn’t oriented for religion or religious community. It is much easier to fast in Muslim-majority contexts where nearly everyone is fasting (or pretending to). There is no expectation of productivity, which allows people to take comfort in their “laziness” rather than feel the nagging guilt that often accompanies the pleasures of doing as little as possible. But, here in a Muslim-minority context, there was very much an expectation of productivity. While I may have been fasting, the rest of the world around me was operating according to an entirely different logic.
And so there were days when I found myself feeling frustrated by Islam’s apparent lack of concern for getting things done. But, of course, the very premise of fasting—much easier to grasp in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world—is to carve out a long stretch of time where metrics of efficiency and economic or intellectual production aren’t foremost in our minds. We’re not supposed to be productive, because life, at least for a month, is elsewhere.
There is something quite wonderful about not working, but it’s a sense of wonder that I simply don’t get the opportunity to experience as much as I might like. Fortunately, I had my weekly conversations with Matthew to ground me. We were mostly discussing our respective readings on Islam and Christianity as part of an ongoing project the two of us codirect at Fuller Seminary. But at the start of these conversations, Matthew would check in with me about my Ramadan fast and whether I was making the most of it. He drew from his own experience of Lent. Not working—or not feeling that one must work to be worthy—allows us, he told me, to feel weakness, vulnerability, and finitude. But it’s more than a feeling. Instead of an economy of scarcity, competition, and output, there is instead an economy of joy and dependence: “Rather than putting faith in our own productivity, we reflect that it is God who makes the world.”
I made a note of what he had said, and I went back to those words. If I was ever tempted to view fasting as a liability, Matthew reminded me that was it a blessing.
At the risk of too much good feeling, I might be tempted to say that difference, itself, is a blessing. In a pluralistic society such as ours (for all its faults), we learn not in spite of difference but because of it. If we approach them with an open spirit, the contrasts and even the disagreements of life and politics—painful as they may be—are the way we come to know ourselves better. It is a way to wrestle the world as it is, and not as we might wish it to be. There will be a next life and another world, but, for now, this is the world that we must learn to live in. There is a certain art to this, and it is an art I am only beginning to learn.
Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and a research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary.