Over the years, I have been blessed to be friends with many Muslims. Many people believe that more and stronger interfaith friendships will increase understanding, and I wholeheartedly agree this is necessary. By creating these interfaith friendships, Christians will let go of misconceptions about Islam, and Muslims will similarly let go of misconceptions regarding Christianity. But as the discussion of such interfaith friendships takes form, is there something more subtle that illustrates a strict dichotomy between the two religions and how they each view and approach such interaction?
To begin with, what is the view within Islam regarding taking Christians as friends? As many people know, the Qur’an forbids Muslims from becoming friends with anyone who would be counted as an unbeliever as well as those “who received the Scripture before” the Muslim. From the Muslim point of view, this would be Christians.
[5.56] O Ye who believe! Choose not for friend such of those who received the Scripture before you, and of the disbelievers, as make a jest and sport of your religion. But keep your duty to Allah if ye are true believers.
Some other translations of this verse of the Qur’an use the world “guardian” or “ally”. However, the meaning is clear. As respected early Muslim ibn Kathir states in his tafsir, “This Ayah discourages and forbids taking the enemies of Islam and its people, such as the People of the Book and the polytheists, as friends.”[i] Luckily, friendship is not something that begins at a distinct moment. Friendships develop over time. If you think about a current friend, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time and place where that person changed from being an acquaintance into a friend. The friendship occurs before either party would cognitively acknowledge its inception. This fact oftentimes allows Christians to develop deep friendships with Muslims even though this is prohibited within Islam.
Though Muslims are warned against taking Christians as friends, Muslims do state they respect the previous prophets and the teachings that they brought. While there is a good argument against whether Muslims actually respect other religions, most Muslims will tell you that they do. The Qur’an even makes a point to note that Muslims are to respect previous prophets. In essence, Muslims are told to believe in Jesus and what He revealed.
[2:136] Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered.
In short, Muslims are to respect Christianity but not take Christians as friends. Jesus teaches us to have a different attitude with respect to how to interact with others, including those who follow other religions. Christians are told we are to love each other (John 13:34; 1 John 3:11). This command is not just for other Christians, but even for our enemies. We are told to love others to the extent even to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Loving your neighbor as yourself is foundational to Jesus’ teachings on how we are to operate on a daily basis (Mark 12:31). Yet at the same time, as Christians we are to hate the sin that so easily entraps those around us (Romans 12:9, Amos 5:15). Jesus lived out this principle as he spent time with sinners, while simultaneously working to guide them to repentance (Mark 2:16-17). When asked about the woman caught in adultery, Jesus makes sure she doesn’t get stoned, but then at the end tells her to change her ways (John 8:11). Many people have summarized this Biblical principle as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” As one Christian writer states, “I can love the liar while hating his lies. I can love the alcoholic while hating his alcoholism. I can love the adulterer while hating his adultery.”[ii]
So what does this have to do with Islam? The same principle applies. As Christians, we are to love Muslims, sincerely and deeply. Yet under no circumstances can we respect and admire a false gospel (Galatians 1:8).
All this preparation though is to illustrate an odd contrast between Islam and Christianity. Islam teaches its adherents to view Christianity with respect, but not to take Christians as friends. Christianity teaches its adherents not to view Islam with respect, but to take Muslims as friends and love them with a pure heart. Islam respects the other religion, but not the followers; Christianity doesn’t respect the other religion, but demands love for its followers.
You could not create more contrasting and anti-parallel teachings regarding how to treat other religions and those who practice them.