Learning to Love My Muslim Neighbor

Joella Ranaivoson

March 27, 2024

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these."  -Jesus (Mark 12:30-31).

In a previous article, I noted that we are called by Jesus to treat our neighbors as our neighbors, not our “Muslim neighbors.” Your neighbor who happens to be a Muslim is a person first, just as you are a person. You have more in common with one another than not. You live in the same city, the same neighborhood, and your kids probably overlap somewhere, whether at school or in activities. You want to thrive and be safe. You have much in common as people.

Things we share in common

So build a friendship with your neighbor as just you would with anybody else you might be interested in knowing better. Don't let “we have different religions” be the roadblock between you. Instead, let your worldviews be the trees lining the path you walk together, providing shade and shelter from either side. You can hold fast to your perspective and still remember that we neighbors share a common human experience. In whatever town we might live in, knowing the basics of where each other comes from can be helpful, including religious understanding. We have more in common than you might think.

One God

You, my Christian friend, share with your Muslim neighbor the belief that there is one God. Neither of you give glory to any deity but the one true God. Now, depending on the camp of both Christians and Muslims, it has been debated if Christians and Muslims believe in the same God, but that’s a subject for another day. The point remains that you both share monotheism. Both believe there is one God, not multiple or many, or even two.

And we agree that God is distinct from creation. God dearly loves what God created, including us, the humans walking around on earth. Christians understand that God came in a human form as Jesus of Nazareth. In Islam, God is understood to be so utterly distinct from creation that God would not manifest as a human.

Jesus is important

In Christianity, we hold that Jesus is prophetic because he is God incarnate. As God the Son, he fully embodies the role of prophet (and priest, and king) as the Savior. The religious order of his day disliked Jesus in part because he spoke prophetically. But Christians understand he came as more than just a prophet.

In Islam, Jesus is recognized as a major prophet in the line of prophets, which ends with Muhammad. Muhammad is considered the last prophet, the Seal of the prophets in the same line of prophets that is mostly shared with both Judaism and Christianity (i.e., Abraham, Moses, Elijah, etc.). Muhammad is revered and cherished as the greatest messenger of God and founder of Islam, as is his birthplace, Mecca. Islam recognizes Jesus as an important prophet who came before Muhammad. Islam does not teach that any prophet has salvific power, but since the highest regard for any human being in Islam is as a prophet, Jesus is a big deal because he is high in that line of prophets. That’s a thread weaving us together.

Faith must be lived out

Service and care for the vulnerable are important in both religions. In Islam, almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, with social responsibility and caring for the vulnerable an integral part of living the faith. In Christianity, there is tithing, a regular practice of offering a portion of your wealth to a church or charity in service to God.

Each year, Ramadan is a month of communal and individual fasting from sunup to sundown as an act of devotion and worship to God for Muslims. Each year, Christians observe the season of Lent, forty days of fasting leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the church calendar. Fasting and praying are practices in each religion.

Religions vary in expression

Muslims are not a monolith, just as Christians don't have a singular expression.

The single biggest population of Muslims in the world is not in the Middle East (as one might expect) but in Indonesia, in southeast Asia. Each country and culture that is predominantly Muslim have different traditions in food, dress, culture, and language, even when they share language of Arabic in their sacred texts.

Likewise, there are Christians from different cultures all over the world. Regional practices of worship and life look different, all while still being within the umbrella of Christianity. Christians disagree on many practices, like working on a Sunday or drinking alcohol. Theological emphasis, biblical interpretation, and faith traditions could all be used to justify each.

Religious traditions may have general consensus but be implemented differently. 

What can we learn from our Muslim friends?

Many Muslims have an everyday lexicon peppered with reminders of the presence and power of God. If you've spent time with a Muslim friend, you may have noticed certain invocations to God. For example, when asking about plans for next week, they might say “Oh, I will go to the beach and meet my friend, inshallah [which means God-willing].” The expression acknowledges our dependence on God’s will in everyday speech. Only if God wills and allows it, they will arrive there, or do this, or find that. It’s only by God’s grace that anything unfolds. 

Also, for many Muslims, faithfulness means non-participation in things that may be accepted easily in wider culture. They may be counter-cultural in practices such as not making or taking monetary loans with interest, not consuming food unless it is free from pork or alcohol (i.e., halal), traveling on pilgrimages of faith to holy sites, or learning their sacred scripture in its original language of Arabic (even if Arabic is not their home language). These are acts of devotion.

Similarly, Muslims emphasize a daily rhythm of prayer. If you’ve ever traveled to a Muslim country, you can hear the public call to prayer five times a day. People stop, kneel, bow, and pray, often together but even if alone. Religious devotion is a daily rhythm, a regular liturgy. Islamic prayer is an embodied, physical activity. The body folds and bows to the majesty of God. Sometimes in Christianity, especially Protestant traditions, prayer becomes an intellectual thing, mostly about the words we speak. Yet prayer can be felt bodily as an experience of communing with God.

Trust that God is present

When you engage with your neighbor who’s a Muslim, just engage them as a human, just like you would want to be engaged. Be curious. We don’t need to overcomplicate it. If you happen to both be scholars of religion and want to get into the nitty-gritty of your differences, I hope you can do so with respect, curiosity, and generosity.

I encourage you to trust that God is already at work in your friends' lives in ways we cannot see and do not understand and that God is gracious and very big. That’s how I would hope my friend, who’s a devoted Muslim, would see and approach me--with love and respect, and not merely as a person to be convinced or changed. Love doesn’t work like that.

About the author — Joella Ranaivoson

Joella is an artist using words in writing, songs, and acting to convey truths about being human. Storytelling is the joy. Everything feeds everything, so take it all in and let it feed your creativity.

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