From Fuller Seminary’s reflections on Christian-Muslim relations
Colonial Americans had no idea that many of the slaves on their shores were actually Muslims. The famous Boston pastor Cotton Mather once quipped, “we are afar off, in a Land, which never had (that ever heard of) one Mahometan breathing in it.”2 Yet they felt themselves to be knowledgeable about Islam through the proliferation of sermons and books on that topic. The other source was the reality of Americans, along with Europeans, who were enslaved by the “Barbary Pirates” of North Africa.3 Already in the 1670s, several stories of North American captives caught the attention of the colonists, but especially that of the appointed royal governor of Carolina, who was abducted in 1679 and later freed by ransom. His narrative has only survived in fragments, but what stands out is “the cruelties of the Muslims” and the power of his prayers, which also influenced his captors.4
Captivity stories from North Africa were so common that many beggars on the streets of colonial America claimed to have been captured by the Barbary pirates, hoping to elicit more sympathy. Yet these stories also fueled a longstanding industry within Christendom including polemical writings about Muslims and Islam. One particularly influential book, Humphrey Prideaux’s, The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet, was published in London in 1697, with seven subsequent editions. Years later, American editions appeared in Philadelphia (1796) and Fairhaven, Vermont (1798), no doubt connected to the nascent U.S. government’s troubles with the Barbary powers at that time.5
We know that Prideaux’s book was widely read in the American colonies, because from the early 18th century on, and for the first time, Muhammad’s name in print rarely appeared without the epithet “impostor.” Prideaux’s message was hardly new, but this Anglican theologian’s main target was the Deists, whose central critique of Christianity was that it was fraudulent. By holding up Islam as a plain case of religious forgery, he hoped to defend Christianity’s integrity. From the start he anticipates accusations of demonizing Islam, but he promises to “approach Islam judiciously.”6 That said, he had little first-hand knowledge, and what he did think he knew was often wrong—but wrote he did, and people on both sides of the Atlantic absorbed it as truth.
There’s been a lot of negative campaign language about Islam this election season—calls for banning Muslims from entering the US and for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods. But there are also serious attempts to oppose anti-Muslims rhetoric. Correspondent Kim Lawton reports on efforts in Nashville, Tennessee to counter hateful speech by building personal relationships between Christians and Muslims. She talks with Rev. Josh Graves, pastor of an evangelical megachurch and author of How Not to Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in North America, along with Muslim community leaders who are participating in the bridge-building efforts.
Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, decided to wear a headscarf during the Advent season as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. In doing so, Hawkins quoted Pope Francis, saying that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
But some evangelical Christians disagree — and Wheaton, a Christian school,responded by putting the political science professor on paid administrative leave. The college says it needs time to review whether her statement puts her at odds with the faith perspective required of those who work there.
Most mainstream Muslims would generally agree they worship the same God that Christians — or Jews — worship. Zeki Saritoprak, a professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, points out that in the Quran there’s the Biblical story of Jacob asking his sons whom they’ll worship after his death.
“Jacob’s sons replied, ‘We will worship the God of your fathers’ — Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. He is the God,” Saritoprak says. “So this God that Jacob worshipped, this God that Abraham, Isaac worshipped, is the same God that Muslims worship today.”
Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. And many evangelicals will say that means Muslims and Jews do not worship the same god as Christians.
A majority of evangelical pastors consider Islam to be “spiritually evil,” according to one just-released poll, but on Oct. 23 an evangelical pastor and an imam took turns talking about their friendship and mutual respect.
Texas Pastor Bob Roberts and Virginia Imam Mohamed Magid joined dozens of other religious leaders in prayer at the Washington National Cathedral before signing a pledge to denounce religious bigotry and asking elected officials and presidential candidates to join them.
“I love Muslims as much as I love Christians,” said Pastor Bob Roberts, of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, before leading a prayer at the “Beyond Tolerance” event.
“Jesus, when you get hold of us, there’s nobody we don’t love.”
Although mainline Christians have joined together for years on interfaith initiatives, work of evangelicals and Muslims is a newer dimension in efforts to foster interreligious understanding.
“I would like each one of us today to spread the news, using evangelical terminology, or to share what we have learned here today,” said Magid, president emeritus of the Islamic Society of North America, as he issued a call to action.
The pledge comes as presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have questioned each other’s devotion to faith and Carson has said he didn’t think a devout Muslim could be president.