I didn’t have Muslim friends growing up. I went to a Christian school in a small, rural town in the Pacific Northwest. My chances of securing a Muslim friend didn’t improve when I decided to attend a small Christian college.
This “Muslim-free” life would continue until the fall of my junior year. Early one morning, my roommates and I awoke to a barrage of phone calls from anxious parents. “Turn on CNN!” they told us. Bleary eyed, we stumbled to the TV room.
It was the eleventh of September.
In the months that followed, my roommates and I were introduced to the world of Islam through the lenses of CNN and Fox News. Cable news offered us a gripping vision of world events—radical Islam versus the West. We saw images of Muslims in far-off countries dancing and celebrating the attacks. We heard them shouting “Allahu Akbar!” Whipped into a frenzy, America wanted revenge.
The strange and foreign object they called “Islam” was portrayed as a sort of clichéd and cartoonish global villain. Muslims were the “problem” that American power would need to “solve.” In a matter of months, America would invade Afghanistan.
I graduated in May of 2003 with the (rather unoriginal) plan to see the world. I spent that first summer in a refugee camp in Eastern Europe run by the United Nations. We were serving refugees fleeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every month, thousands of asylum seekers were making their way into the heart of Europe and were detained and transferred to a variety of camps. I was stationed in a camp on the Hungarian border with Romania. My task was straightforward—offer English classes and tutoring in the hopes that the refugees might eventually establish a new life for themselves in Europe.
While teaching was my formal task, the vast majority of my informal time was spent walking the camp and listening to stories. Beleaguered families would invite me into their simple rooms for a warm drink and sobering accounts of homes destroyed, children killed, wives kidnapped, and neighborhoods leveled. Sharing pictures and meals, I encountered a different side to Islam—one I had not witnessed in the news. The two-dimensional Muslims I had encountered on TV gave way to the three-dimensional ones I had encountered over a cup of tea.
But there is another act in this story.
In this initial act, Muslims (who were characters in my story) were either distant terrorists or desperate refugees. In the camps, Muslims needed me. I was the provider, they the recipient. As a twenty-one-year-old with a savior complex, I’m quite certain I would have described myself as a blessing to them.
Soon enough, the roles would be reversed.
From Host to Guest
After my time in the camps, I went on to graduate school to study theology, political ethics, and Muslim-Christian relations. As a young theologian and ethicist, I wrote my first book about Muslim immigration in the West and the Christian case for hospitality toward them.
Then I met Shadi Hamid. A globally respected scholar on political Islam and international relations, Shadi was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a writer for The Atlantic. He had read my book and generously agreed to endorse it and even offer a speech at the official book launch event. His endorsement was, no doubt, a tremendous “get” for my first book. I was honored.
Shadi is an American Muslim who defies all of America’s clichéd understandings of Islam post 9/11. Shadi is a native-born son of Philadelphia and a graduate of Oxford and Berkeley. He has insight and agency, wisdom and complexity.
Soon enough, “Dr. Hamid” becomes simply “my friend Shadi.” We begin to travel the country together, speaking at various universities on topics related to religion, politics, and deep difference. Sharing quiet meals after these events, Shadi and I continue our discussions. We discuss our personal struggles with our theological ideas around divine justice and wrath, law and love, sin and salvation. We wrestle with the mutual challenges of being a “strange” person of faith in secular spaces.
Getting to know Shadi, seeing his character, and watching him navigate the world and engage deep difference, I begin to discover that I would have a problem.
Shadi is not only complex and three-dimensional; he is my better.
It didn’t take long to recognize that Shadi is smarter than me. He is extremely well-read. His writing is more clear, forceful, and fluid. His public speaking is effortless. He can quickly recognize and analyze a wide variety of global movements and political dynamics.
But it’s more than that. Shadi is more patient, kind, and generous than me. He is more willing to admit his faults and blind spots. He is better equipped to take chances and less fearful of being wrong.
I wrote an entire dissertation exploring how we can navigate deep religious difference, and, well, Shadi is better at it than me. I studied and wrote about the Christian concept of grace, and while Shadi doesn’t really believe in it, he seems to live that grace better than me.
Now—lest he get a big head about all this—it must be said that Shadi has his flaws. He’s working on a variety of character flaws and bad habits. Shadi readily admits that he could “be a better Muslim.” That said, it cannot be denied that in intelligence, character, wisdom, creativity, and faithfulness, Shadi is my better. And, from time to time, I feel envious.
“Leave room for holy envy.” This was the advice offered by Dr. Krister Stendahl, former bishop of Sweden and dean of Harvard Divinity School. What he means here is not that I will become jealous that Shadi has Mohammed and the Koran while I only have Jesus Christ and the Bible (that’s not a trade I would ever want to make).
No, the tenor of my “holy envy” toward Shadi is this. My whole life, I have wanted to live more like Jesus, and here I have found a Muslim who seems like he’s doing it better than me—and he’s not even trying. I’ve frequently asked God to give me a set of virtues and character traits, and here I find a Muslim who already has them in spades.
"MY WHOLE LIFE, I HAVE WANTED TO LIVE MORE LIKE JESUS, AND HERE I HAVE FOUND A MUSLIM WHO SEEMS LIKE HE'S DOING IT BETTER THAN ME—AND HE'S NOT EVEN TRYING."
Bridges and Walls That Move
Every week, Shadi and I have a standing Zoom call. We’re in the process of writing a book together, and we need to stay organized and on task. The conversations often feel like an exercise in creative chaos. I’m never able to predict where our discussions will take us. Why the chaos?
When Muslims and Christians gather for conversation, they often carry with them an array of expectations about how things are going to proceed. They assume they know what their interlocutor will say and how they will respond. They assume that they can predict which theological bridges will bind them to the “religious other” and which walls will divide them. They expect these bridges and walls to remain stable and predictable. Speaking from experience, this isn’t true.
I regularly enter a meeting with Shadi assuming that I have successfully established some sort of common ground between Islam and Christianity, that Shadi and I are in absolute lockstep on some issue or another, only to have that the perceived point of connection or consensus taken away from me. Likewise, I often enter the conversation confident that—because I’m a Christian—I possess some beautiful theological insight found only within Christianity. Soon enough, I find that teaching—which I believed to be exclusively unique to the gospel of Jesus Christ—is actually found within Islam as well. Neither Islam in general nor Shadi in particular is something or someone I can box in or fully fathom.
Christian Resources for Walls and Bridges That Move
I suspect that God is active in my weekly conversations with Shadi. When I experience beautiful moments of connection with him, I suspect God is active there. In the same way, when I find that much still separates Shadi and me, I suspect God is also active there, reminding me how—in very important ways—we are not the same.
As an evangelical Christian, how should I navigate this dynamic relationship with Shadi?
How do I make sense of my envy for Shadi’s intellectual and spiritual gifts?
How do I remain open to the ways in which God might be active in our relationship?
How do I resist the temptation to pull back from Shadi’s deep difference and return to my “Christian bubble”?
How might I resist the temptation to ignore the uncomfortable differences between Islam and Christianity?
When it comes to theological guidance on these critical questions of interfaith encounter, Christians are not without resources. I want to offer a number of theological tools and concepts that have been extremely helpful to me as I have grown in my Christian relationship with Shadi and Islam. Here is a list of the concepts that I’d like to briefly discuss:
What follows is a brief overview of each of these resources and a brief application to my own relationship with Shadi and Islam. For the sake of brevity and accessibility, my theological definitions will be short (and a little simplistic). If readers have additional questions or wish to push for more complexity and theological nuance, I would encourage them to consult the readings listed in the endnote. For those interested in my theological sources, I will be drawing on a tradition of thought found in the works of figures like John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck.
With these comments out of the way, let’s engage the theological resources that can help us better engage our Muslim neighbors in faithfulness to the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.
Summary: The theological concept of antithesis is meant to indicate that because of humanity’s fall into sin, a deep division has opened up betwixt and between creation, humanity, and God. Antithesis insists that these great chasms of sin and evil cannot be bridged by mortal hands nor will they be united within this present age.
One day, these chasms will be bridged—but only by Christ and only when he returns in power. Until that day, human divisions in religion and politics will stand in antithetical opposition to one another, and all efforts to unite humanity into one global family, faith, or political force will fail. We stand in need of a reconciler—one to whom every knee will bow.
Application: This theological concept of antithesis offers a number of extremely helpful insights for my relationship with Islam and Shadi. First and foremost, it inspires humility. Because of the antithesis, I will not, I cannot, and (indeed) I must not try to construct my own human bridge of perfect consensus between Christianity and Islam or Matt and Shadi. Any experience of reconciliation that Shadi and I encounter will always be partial. The ultimate power to reconcile and unite belongs to Christ alone.
In short, I can relax. It is not my job to unite. It is not my job to save. It is not my job to assimilate Shadi into my faith. It is not my job to build some magnificent bridge of perfect understanding between Islam and Christianity. My task is humble and finite. I’m called to love and serve amidst differences that I am not empowered to fully understand.
Summary: According to the Christian doctrine of semen religionis, every human being has been created (or implanted) with a “seed of religion.” By this, theologians mean that everyone has an innate yearning to worship or serve something greater than themselves. We are, by our very nature, religious. Across time, human beings have given their lives in devoted service to a wide array of gods, causes, leaders, ideas, forces of nature, and so on. In short, human beings are haunted by a longing to give themselves to something or someone.
This human desire to worship and serve is not an accident; it is not a curse; it is not a human invention; nor is it the result of evolutionary biology. The seed of religion is actually a gift from God.
Application: Because of the semen religionis, we can say that Islam—at its base—is not the creation of the devil. When Muslims pray, fast, and read the Koran, and when they offer alms, fight for justice, or engage in the hadj, their honest and pious acts emerge from a created good. These urges and actions are not—at their ontological core—the result of the devil. They are, rather, the outworking of a seed that was planted in them by their Creator. It was God—not the devil—who designed Muslims for prayer.
Make no mistake, human sin and evil are real. The devil perverts and misdirects the human desire for worship. Satan directs us to worship a wide variety of things that are not the God of Jesus Christ. We are all prone to idolatry.
However, when my friend Shadi goes to his mosque to pray, this deep and abiding longing is not something that he made up for himself. The devil did not teach Shadi to pray. Shadi’s heart is restless for God because God—not the devil—designed his heart.
Therefore, when Shadi tells me that he’s going to the mosque to pray (instead of the church), my first emotion is not one of sadness or defeat. God’s divine seed of religion is alive within Shadi, and my hope-filled prayer is Christ will nourish that seed with his living water.
Summary: The Christian doctrine of natural law argues that creation itself is infused with the laws, limits, and commands of the Creator. God’s commands are not simply spoken to us in Scripture; they are written on our hearts. Human beings were intentionally designed by their Creator for things like sabbath, love, truth telling, monogamy, promise keeping, sharing, and justice. When human beings live according to these natural laws, they flourish. When they ignore these inscribed laws, they begin to break down.
Application: While Shadi and I disagree on a variety of theological issues, we often find ourselves surprisingly close on a number of ethical, legal, and political issues. We articulate our perspectives using unique language and unique scriptures, but, all the same, our perspectives on ethics and politics often line up. How might this be? The lives of Jesus and Mohammed are quite different. While Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet, they do not accept him as divine. In an age of unprecedented religious and political disagreement and division, how is it that a progressive Muslim like Shadi and a conservative Christian like me continue to find moments of profound ethical and political agreement?
Well, despite our religious and political differences, Shadi and I still inhabit the same creation. Despite all of the ways that I have been taught that Muslims are a foreign species, Shadi and I still inhabit the same human bodies.
One God implanted one natural law in both of us. Blinded and impaired by our sin, Shadi and I will continue to disagree in our interpretations of this one natural law. However, the Creator—whom we both share—will continue to bring Shadi and me back together through the one natural law that fills both of our chests and surrounds us at every turn.
"THIS HUMAN DESIRE TO WORSHIP AND SERVE IS NOT AN ACCIDENT; IT IS NOT A CURSE; IT IS NOT A HUMAN INVENTION; NOR IS IT THE RESULT OF EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY. THE SEED OF RELIGION IS ACTUALLY A GIFT FROM GOD."
Summary: A belief in God’s sovereignty and ultimate dominion in the world has a variety of implications for how we respond to deep religious difference in the world that exists beneath his reign. Three aspects of God’s sovereignty exist that are particularly relevant for my relationship with Islam: spatial sovereignty, temporal sovereignty, and salvific sovereignty. I’ll explain them in turn.
Salvific sovereignty indicates that God—and God alone—has the sovereign power to change and redeem a human heart. God—and God alone—has the power to save. No individual or institution has the power (or right) to force a conversion. The human heart is a sacred thing—the right to change that heart belongs to the one who created it.
Temporal sovereignty indicates that God—and God alone—reigns over the course of human history. The historical development of a nation, religion, or culture is ultimately in the hands of God alone. No created individual has the temporal power (or right) to try and grab the wheels of history and “take the country back” through the use of political power. God alone holds the reins of history and will make the final judgement.
Spatial sovereignty indicates that God alone reigns over all the diverse communities and social spaces that make up a culture. Schools, businesses, governments, families, organizations, and religious communities are social spaces that ultimately belong to God. They are ultimately responsible to God for their behavior. God is the only one who can claim total sovereignty over these various communities and organizations. Families, businesses, and houses of worship each have their own unique purposes, and they should never be forced to serve a political, economic, or religious end that is not their own. God’s spatial sovereignty over places of worship demands a generous amount of religious freedom for each. God alone will judge and direct these distinct houses of worship at the end of time. The state dare not violate these spaces and tread on God’s spatial sovereignty. Any attempt to direct, punish, or assimilate these sacred spaces of worship would be a direct affront to God’s reign over them.
Application: God’s unbounded sovereignty over space, time, and the human heart contains a wide variety of implications for my relationship with Muslims.
First, because of God’s salvific sovereignty, I know that I am not called to “save” my friend Shadi nor am I empowered to change his heart. My task is to talk about the one who changed mine. My posture in evangelism needs be humble and relaxed—God is sovereign over Shadi. To force or manipulate Shadi dishonors God’s ultimate sovereignty over him. A firm belief in God’s goodness and sovereign power should cultivate a humble and non-anxious posture toward those of other faiths.
Politically speaking, I could never support political movements that would seek to manipulate or assimilate pious Muslim children into secular culture. Government programs should never attempt through public education or social engineering to convert religious children and communities into secularism. Salvific sovereignty means that the state should stay out of the conversion business.
Second, the deep religious and political divisions of our present moment cause a great deal of anxiety. Both the political right and left would seek to reduce these uncomfortable differences through the use of political power. They envision a political future in which American unity is secured through a power that is human rather than divine. Because of my belief in the temporal sovereignty of God, I must resist both a secular left and a Christian right in their desire to unite America under their own reign.
Third, because of God’s spatial sovereignty, I must defend the rights and dignity of Muslim communities. They should not be subject to unfair restrictions, penalty, or suspicion. When American towns and neighborhoods protest the construction of a mosque, when those mosques are attacked or defaced, the spatial sovereignty of God demands that Christians must stand up and defend the integrity of these Muslim spaces.
Summary: Common grace is the belief that the Holy Spirit is active in the world blessing all with good gifts.1 Beyond the walls of the church, God’s life-giving rain “falls on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Despite all of the ways in which humanity rebels, God continues to sustain and bless human beings lavishly. We call these blessings and gifts “common” because their benefits are for all. We call these blessings and gifts “grace” because they are undeserved.
The common grace gifts of the Holy Spirit bless humanity in a wide variety of ways. Below, I will briefly explore four specific blessings that are pertinent to our conversation. First, common grace restrains our human capacity for evil and destruction. On its own, sinful human cultures would constantly be in danger of destroying themselves. God graciously restrains this capacity for self-destruction by holding sinful societies, cultures, and institutions together.
Second, common grace blesses humanity with cultural, scientific, and technological development. God graciously enables diverse cultures and religions to cultivate the world for the blessing of all. In this way, all religions and cultures can contribute to human knowledge and development by God’s common grace.
Third, common grace offers humanity the moral gifts of virtue, love, and ethics. While our sinfulness would lead us away from God’s natural law, by common grace, cultures and religions continue to exhibit moral conviction, generosity, and growth.
Fourth, common grace offers humanity the continued gifts of religious piety. While our sinfulness would seek to obscure and cover up the original “seed of religion” planted deep within our souls, God’s common grace continues to cultivate the human desire to serve something beyond themselves. Through this universal desire to serve rather than dominate, diverse cultures are continually blessed through humble hearts that seek to bless rather than curse, honor rather than desecrate.
It seems obvious, but it needs to be reiterated that all forms of common grace are authored by God alone. It is God who freely decides to restrain, bless, and enrich the nations of the world in these ways. Through moments of common grace, the Holy Spirit freely elects to form deep connections between Christians and non-Christians through education, the arts, philosophy, science, and play. That said, because these connections and blessings are authored by God alone, they cannot be controlled or predicted.
Application: As I discussed earlier, Shadi is my better. In a variety of life arenas, Shadi’s gifts exceed my own. The Christian doctrine of common grace enables me to understand that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to bless the world through Shadi’s gifts. More than that, the doctrine of common grace compels me to assess Shadi’s gifts and actively thank God for the ways in which I have been blessed through Shadi. In essence, my response to Shadi cannot end with an experience of “holy envy”; it must move to holy gratitude.
Second, if God truly blessed Shadi with these gifts, I must remain open to the future ways in which God might teach me through Shadi’s life and work.
Third, whenever Shadi and I strongly disagree over important matters of theology or politics, I’m not allowed to despair or cynically walk away from him. By God’s common grace, I know that our divisions and disagreements will not be permanent. I can remain at the table in hope and expectation that by God’s common grace, our relationship will be blessed in the future with new and unanticipated moments of enriching insight and connection.
"I CAN REMAIN AT THE TABLE IN HOPE AND EXPECTATION THAT BY GOD'S COMMON GRACE, OUR RELATIONSHIP WILL BE BLESSED IN THE FUTURE WITH NEW AND UNANTICIPATED MOMENTS OF ENRICHING INSIGHT AND CONNECTION."
Summary: While common grace offers blessings worthy of our gratitude, its gifts are neither salvific nor transformative. Common grace can bless a person with some level of intelligence while leaving the heart unchanged. It can give a person knowledge of chemistry, math, and poetry but fail to give that person the saving knowledge of Jesus.
The doctrine of special grace is a complement to that which is missing in common grace. When a person experiences the special grace of God in Jesus Christ, that person is forever justified and redeemed by the saving work of the cross. Unlike common grace, special grace is a direct, complete, unlimited, and salvific act of God.
By God’s special grace, Christians have direct access to God’s Word, God’s church, and God’s Son. These special sources of divine revelation exceed and illuminate the gifts of wisdom and insight found in common grace (human science, philosophy, religion, etc.).
Therefore, while Christians should always remain open to and grateful for the wisdom and insight of non-Christians, we must always make a distinction between grace that’s common and grace that’s special. The access to God that I find in Jesus Christ is fundamentally distinct from the access to God that I experience studying human philosophy, science, religion, or the arts. Both are a blessing from God, but only one has the power to save.
Whenever Christians encounter the deep difference of Islam, they inevitably experience feelings of psychological and theological discomfort and urgently look for ways to find a resolution. Two popular methods to calm a Christian’s nerves could be termed “the fundamentalist” and “the liberal” (these clumsy labels are problematic, but they will do in a pinch). The fundamentalist resolves the tension of deep difference by drawing a clear and hard line between one’s Muslim neighbor and oneself. The liberal, on the other hand, resolves the tension by attempting to erase the line between one’s Muslim neighbor and oneself. Unfortunately for the fundamentalist and the liberal, the discomfort that deep difference brings cannot be resolved so easily.
Together, the doctrines of both common and special grace enable us to avoid the classic failures of “the fundamentalist” and “the liberal.” In brief, the fundamentalist sees no value whatsoever in non-Christian philosophy, science, and religion. God is only active within the church, and the church is the possessor of all things good, true, and beautiful. Any perceived point of commonality between Islam and Christianity must be quickly denied. The Christian liberal makes the opposite mistake. The liberal sees tremendous value in non-Christian philosophy, science, and religion. God is active everywhere in the world. Any perceived difference or hierarchy between Islam and Christianity must be quickly denied. The liberal’s mistake is in the failure to make a distinction between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. The liberal removes the boundary between the special grace of the cross, the Scripture, and the church and the common grace of therapy, philosophy, and religion. The Bible and the Koran are suddenly equal sources of revelation.
Summary: The doctrine of special grace offers a number of practical implications for my relationships with Muslims. First, while there is much that I must humbly learn from my Muslim friends and colleagues, the sort of learning that I experience in those conversations is fundamentally distinct from the learning that I experience in prayer, worship, and scriptural study. Reading Islamic thought may very well enrich my life and thinking in a wide variety of ways, but it will not save me.
Second, while Shadi is thoughtful, kind, and brilliant—a magnificent writer and a thoughtful political commentator—and while God has blessed him in a wide variety of ways, God’s saving work in Shadi’s life is not yet complete. As his friend, my prayers for Shadi don’t cease simply because he’s improving morally or intellectually. Shadi needs to know Jesus. Shadi needs a transformative encounter with Christ’s cross.
Make no mistake, the friendship, dialogue, and learning that goes on between Shadi and me is a tremendous gift. That said, the friendship that we can offer to each other is fundamentally distinct from the friendship that we can find in Jesus Christ. The distinction, I would argue, is critical.
Muslims believe they are saved by faith through works. By faith, they received the law and walk in its ways. On judgement day, God will weigh in the scales their good deeds against their bad deeds and they will receive their verdict.
Christians believe we are saved by grace through faith. By faith, we accept that Christ has fulfilled the law and we walk by his grace. The scales are gone. The verdict is in. God loves us and has forgiven us in Christ. Any good works we do are a mere response to the amazing work that Christ has done on our behalf.
These are two different stories about how one becomes right with God. While Shadi’s virtues outpace my own, I would not trade my story for his.
So, what are your Muslim neighbors to you? Are they two-dimensional or three? The beginning of my story is a rather familiar and unoriginal tale, but I have no intention of concluding this essay with a tired and moralistic directive to “see the world, make Muslim friends, and tear down stereotypes.”
Instead, I’d like to close with something different. I’d like to suggest that while I’ve learned a lot of interesting things over the years about culture, religion, and politics, I’ve also learned something important about my very finite role within the much larger mission of God.
Looking back to my youth, I see now that I had selfishly placed my nation, my church, and myself within the center of everything that God was doing in the world. First, Muslims were a danger to my nation, then Muslims were in need of my help, the recipients of my evangelism, and finally the subject of my research and writing.
Here, the doctrine of common grace offers me release—it’s not about me. God’s generous and complex work of grace in the world is so much larger than me.
My friend Shadi is a complex creation of God. God is and will be glorified through Shadi’s life, and—from time to time—I might get to witness small pieces of that. I will continue to experience moments of “holy envy” and jealousy when I read Shadi’s sparkling prose or witness his uncommon grace with his political opponents. That said, envy will not be my final posture. In the end, jealousy must turn to gratitude for the ways in which I have learned that my story is one finite aspect within the infinitely more complex and kaleidoscopic work of God’s grace in my world and Shadi’s.
1. See Abraham Kuyper’s development of common grace in Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 118–129; and Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, vols. 1–3 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).
Matthew Kaemingk, PhD is the Richard John Mouw Associate Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary. He wrote the award-winning book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (2019) and cohosts Zealots at the Gate, a podcast on faith and politics. Matthew is a frequent NF contributor and also a member of NF’s board.