By Roy Oksnevad
I was reflecting on the multiple ways in which people approach Islam and the controversy that ensues. The list I have compiled is in no way exhaustive but may be helpful in evaluating books, websites, articles, and speakers on Islam. These lenses do impact the way we see and understand Islam. I use these terms knowing that these categories are generalizations, not everyone is squarely in one category, and not everyone mentioned exhibits the weaknesses or strengths mentioned. However, I find it helpful in understanding that there isn’t only one approach to Islam, but multiple ways of looking at a religion. The lens or lenses we use determines our response. Each one has its own strengths and a weaknesses, and knowing their limitations I pray will help us better understand the positions we take on an issue.
Emic (insider approach or sometimes called phenomenology of religion): This has nothing to do with the Insider Movement and its controversy. Rather, it reflects a person who gives accounts, descriptions, and analyses of a religion trying hard to not make value judgements. They describe the religion as members of the religion would. Academic programs use this approach, and typically those who employ this method are religious pluralists. Many people misunderstand Islam and Muslims because they have not seriously sought to understand what Muslims actually teach and believe before making judgments. The strength of this approach gives a voice to the religion as value-neutral as possible. The weakness of the position is that it does not present both internal and external evidence that may contradict or undermine the beliefs and teaching of Muslims. This approach is particularly susceptible of only presenting self-justifying beliefs or circular reasoning and not presenting weaknesses that religions are particularly known for. John Esposito and Karen Armstrong would be two such scholars using this lens.
Etic (outsider approach): Missiologists and anthropologists use this lens. They understand the religion and focus more on the people by studying the religion or people using research to better understand the people and religion in a greater context. One of the strengths of the etic approach is that it allows for comparison across contexts and populations and the development of more general cross-cultural concepts. In addition, this approach makes value judgements by bringing an outside perspective and evidence that Muslims may not be aware of or refuse to accept. The strength of this approach is it looks at a wider body of literature than just how religious practitioners approach their faith, giving an objective outsider’s look at the religion. The weakness is it can represent the religion in a way that has no feel for the role faith plays in the religion or how the practitioner understands and practices their faith. There are many who use this lens, such as historian Bernard Lewis, anthropologist Raphael Patai, missiologist David Greenlee or Dudley Woodberry.
The various approaches or lenses mentioned below are specific to communities of faith. These approaches are used both by Muslims and Christians. My focus is with the Christian use of these lenses.
Islamophobic (fearful or hateful of): This term is controversial and is often used to shut down communication. I use this term in a broader sense that reflects a body of literature that is fear-mongering. The Islamophobia lens globalizes the religion by taking a small part of Islam and saying most or all Muslims are this way. It expresses itself when people stereotype Islam as violent and the only true authentic expression of Islam. They want to warn and expose the threat of radical Islam and its agenda of taking over the world, but end up delegitimizing Muslims. There is a whole body of literature that takes an alarmist position, often qualifying that they are speaking only about the Islamist version of Islam that is often associated with violent jihad. It seems to be the popular topic of many, both experts and novices. The strength of this position is that it gives attention to a very dangerous segment of Islam to those who may be naïve in their understanding of Islam. The weakness is that it fuels the natural fear of the unknown in human nature that vilifies the other. Some notable authors are Daniel Pipes, Mark Gabriel, Robert Spencer, Steven Emerson, and Bridgette Gabriel, but there are many others jumping on this approach.
Polemic: Polemics is a contentious argument that is intended to support a specific position via attacks on a contrary position. Polemics are mostly seen in arguments about controversial topics. The goal is exposing the wrong beliefs of the other, in this case, Islam. Those using this approach would argue aggressively against the truth claims of the other religion. The ultimate concern is to expose error found in the other religion.
- Muhammad tortured an old woman Fatima by cutting her in half.
- Muhammad attacked and killed Jews, Christians and any Muslim who renounced him.
- There are scientific errors in the Qur’an, like the sun sets in a well full of water and mud.
- The angel Gabriel complies with the wishes of Muhammad by asking his step-son to divorce his wife Zaynab so Muhammad could marry her (Surah 33:37-38).
- The Qur’an contradicts itself, so Surah 2:106 instructs that the later verses abrogate the former verses.
- The Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic tongue yet Muslim scholars recognize between 118—280 plus non-Arabic words.
There are people and websites that use this approach. Much of this approach is perceived as rebuttals to Muslim polemics against Christianity or Christian polemics against Islam.
For instance, the website http://religionresearchinstitute.org/ takes a strictly polemic approach while http://answering-islam.org/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-wOxG8p_Nk5nFkSxZOxq6w represent a mixed bag of polemics and apologetics. Authors are people like Ibn Warraq, Robert Morey, David Wood, or Jay Smith.
Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) and to explain one’s belief through the systematic use of information or proofs. From a Christian perspective, it is defending the biblical truth that is being attacked and to use evidence to explain Christianity. The focus is answering objections to the faith with the ultimate concern of convincing people to change their views.
- The Qur’an says Jesus is only a prophet so prove Jesus is more than a prophet.
- The Qur’an denies that Jesus died on the cross so prove that Jesus died on the cross.
- God is not love in the Qur’an so prove that God is love in the Bible.
- The Qur’an confuses Mary the mother of Jesus as Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron, so prove that this is wrong.
- Mary gave birth to Jesus in the desert under a date palm tree all alone, so prove Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem.
Some of the many authors are John Gilchrist, Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, and Nabeel Qureshi.
Theological: Theology is the field of study and analysis that treats God, his attributes, and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; and divinity. The theological approach uses the lens of systematic theology as the lens for judging the truthfulness of the religion. From a Christian perspective, its goal is to defend the doctrine of the Bible from error and expose the theological misrepresentations of God in the other religion. Therefore, the focus of this approach will define Islam and Christianity based on the teaching on the nature and character of God. The ultimate concern is correct theology. The controversy over the God of Islam and Christianity focuses through this lens.
- The etymology of Allah/God: the word Allah is derived from the Aramaic and Syriac word for God meaning “the god.” Christians and Jews who migrated into Arabia used Allah before Muhammad was born.
- No Muslim or Christian worships a generic God or a mere concept of God in some vague, philosophical mist.
- Muslims worship the God revealed in the Qur’an and Christians worship God in flesh—Jesus.
- Rephrase the question: Is the Allah as revealed in the Quran identical to the Allah as revealed in an Arabic Bible? Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? No!
- The God of the Bible is reconciling the world to himself in Christ whereas the God of Islam is not.
A strength of this lens is the focus upon the theological teachings of the religion. A weakness is it can be judgmental and fail to see the person and respond only to the teaching. Some of the many authors who use this approach are John Piper, Sam Schlorff, Georges Houssney, and Timothy George.
Missiological: I use the word missiological to place literature that has the practical theology that investigates the mandate, message, and mission of the Christian church, to reach Muslims for Christ. We could also use the term evangelistic, for its main concern is to reach the other, in this case, Muslims, with a goal of conversion. They would study the other religion and use approaches that would help the hearer understand the message of Christ. The strength of this approach is the focus upon presenting the gospel to Muslims and trying to present the gospel in the most winsome manner as possible. The weakness of this position is that it can be so focused on evangelism from only the Christian perspective and fail to understand the other religion. Some of the many authors are Kenneth Bailey, John Azumah, Fouad Accad, Colin Chapman, Roland Muller, and Roland Miller.
Irenic (seeking peace): The idea here is to make peace. The focus here is favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation. The methodology is interfaith dialogue or round table discussions. The strength of this position is to bring those who misunderstand one another together, seeking to understand with the goal of living in peace. The weakness of this position can be only focusing on peace and thereby compromising the gospel in the end. Often, more liberal Christian denominations overlook the areas of conflict to achieve the goal of living in peace. People who use this approach are Carl Medearis, Rick Love (http://www.peace-catalyst.net/), Christine Mallouhi, or David Shenk.
There are other categories in Islamic studies that I have not mentioned. What I have done is taken authors we might be familiar with and place them in categories that explain how they are viewing Islam. Not all authors remain in only one category, but I sought to name the categories, describe them, and place authors that best fits that particular lens. The particular lens you chose will color the way you see, react, and witness to Muslims. Consider using multiple lenses as you interact with Muslims. You may need them all.