Digesting the “Deadly Misunderstanding”

Digesting the “Deadly Misunderstanding” January 19, 2010

The past decade could have, and perhaps should have been a time for Christians to begin learning about Islam.  But that didn’t happen very much.  Instead we learned about the terror tactics of ‘racial Islam’, and some of us even made the grave error of generalizing radical Islam, imputing those values to all Muslims.  This is very kind of objectification that Jesus warned against when he spoke of people who ‘have eyes but don’t see’, ‘ears but don’t hear.’  It’s time to step away from our stereotypes and get educated.

One of the better tools that might help you towards that end is Mark Siljander’s book, “A Deadly Misunderstanding”. Mark shares the evolution of his own thinking on the Christian/Muslim divide with us, going all the way back to his being offended by a Muslim speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC, to how his senate, and later ambassador responsibilities intersected with his Christian faith to create a crisis of questions:  “How can I learn to show love to Muslims?”  This first question led Mark to approach heads of state from the middle-east and North Africa as one eager to learn about the values and beliefs of Islam.  He began studying languages, including Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), bought a copy of the Koran and began reading and studying it.

The book is a blend of narrative (Mark’s own expanding web of relationships with Islamic leaders, teachers, and scholars), and theology (Mark’s ever expanding discoveries of common beliefs between Christians and Muslims).  I won’t reveal those points of common interest because I think you should take the time to read the book.  After all, nearly every nation in which our military is involved in conflict has a sizable Muslim presence.  Conventional wisdom, even, would tell us that we should know our enemy.  Jesus would tell us that we should love our enemy.  Mark will tell us that when we begin to study our enemy, we realize that he might not even BE our enemy, that we perhaps share more in common, than we differ.

I was skeptical as I read the book because I found myself thinking, at each point, “Yes, we might share that in common, but what about…?” as I raised the flag of a great divide between Islam and Christianity.  Then Mark would address my concern.  I’d be satisfied for a few pages, and then ask again, and then again.  Each time, Mark has an answer.

Mark isn’t saying there are no differences between our respective faiths.  He is saying that we can find fellowship and even friendship by focusing on the ethics and teachings of Jesus and discussing them with Muslims, that this is a common ground.  This work will challenge your notions of evangelism, and even the use of the word Christian, as Mark hints that Jesus didn’t come to establish a new religion at all, but rather to draw people into relationship with Himself.  I disagree on this last point (Jesus is the head of a body called ‘the church’, and though the church has mucked things up over the centuries countless times, the truth is that when we’re called to Christ, we’re called into a community of faith, because Christ’s life is displayed through community).  In spite of my disagreement on this point, I think Mark has made some remarkable discoveries.

He’s shared his research about common points between the two faiths with scholars of both Christianity and Islam, along with Evangelical leaders, and found an overwhelmingly positive response.   I’m so intrigued with what he’s done that I’m hoping to find a way to have him visit us here in Seattle for a weekend.  We’ll see what happens.

I enjoyed the book for personal reasons as well.  I did a wedding in DC this past summer for some Bethany missionaries, and as Mark began sharing his story, several names of people I’d met at the wedding popped up, including the father of the bride!  This makes me all the more intent on finding a way to further the discussion.

Buy the book, because you’ll want to mark it up.  Don’t swallow everything without thinking, praying, and searching the Bible.  But don’t reject anything simply because it doesn’t fit what you’ve heard before.  The points of common ground with Muslims just might be one of the most important discoveries of the past ten years, and getting the word out, an central mission for next ten.


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  • Kevin

    Even better than reading a book on Muslim-Christian interactions, go have some interactions yourself. Face-to-face conversations can be more challenging than sitting down with a book, but I have found that sitting across from a living, breathing human being evokes a deeper compassion than can be drawn from text on a page. Simply bring an earnest curiosity which seeks to engage on the basis of commonality and a desire to understand the areas where the two faiths are distinct, but remember to tread lightly; many before you have come recklessly and stomped on some very sacred ground with very muddy boots.

  • Diane Taylor

    If you haven’t read it, you might find the little book The Torn Veil worth reading.

    You can find a copy at Harvest Logos Bookstore in
    the Greenwood neighborhood.

  • raincitypastor

    Thanks Kevin… and I completely agree. My only caveat is that I found this book very helpful in giving me some history, context, and talking points regarding our two faiths. The author’s journey towards bridge building dialogue included his own mis-steps, and articulated some of our cutlure’s mis-steps (both evangelical culture, and American culture). So, I feel like I have a better map for conversation.

  • Lamont

    Qoute from Cal Thomas:
    “Mark Siljander’s belief that ancient “holy books” have been mistranslated and that warring factions don’t really know what they are fighting about — in fact, shouldn’t be fighting at all — is the most fascinating proposition I’ve read since Muslims, Jews and Christians started killing each other nearly two millennia ago. It warrants serious study and detailed analysis.”
    Cal Thomas.

    Does the author actually state the above comment in his book about mis-translation? I wonder if Cal meant Mis-interpreted? Interesting!
    Definitely warrants discernment!

  • Kevin

    I wonder if Thomas is greatly exaggerating the history of animosity between the three Abrahamic faiths, especially since the Qur’an regards both Jews and Christians as Ahl al-khitab (“people of the book”), and that both Jews and Christians were accorded special legal status under Islamic law. Our history together has not been entirely blood-soaked, and will only continue to be so long as we collectively will it so.

  • Kevin

    Granted. Context can go a long way towards alleviating fear and trepidation, both of which have primarily characterized the Muslim-Christian relationship for at least ten years, now.

    Another group to involve in such a dialog would be Jews, as their faith helps to form a bridge of understanding between Christianity and Islam, filling in the gaps where our traditions have become so divergent that the gap feels uncrossable.

  • Lois

    I have lived and worked in two Islamic countries. After arriving back in the US, I felt as though I knew less about Islam than before I lived in a predominantly Muslim country. So I began reading as many books on Islam and the Middle East as I could find. I seek out authors from varying backgrounds and viewpoints when I can find them.

    Here is an insightful analogy on the difference between extremist Islamists, bent on twisting Islam’s tenets to further their own agenda, and the majority of Muslims:

    Terrorist, extremist Islamist factions are to Islam as KKK groups are to Christianity.

  • hi Richard

    I challenged myself to start reading your blog this morning as a way to feel a little more connected community-wise to BCC. Its been an odd thing for my wife and I going from a small church in LA with an intimate community to such a large church in seattle 7 years later…

    I appreciate your call for understanding to the Muslim tradition, writings and ultimately the people. I remember thinking back during 911 how polarized the west had become to muslim world prior to the attack. I wondered if more communication and even curiosity our part could help stem the future tide of misunderstanding and fanaticism that seems to add fuel to the violence. I still wonder if one day Western student groups might create an online blog exchange with Muslim university students to better communicate and openly air differences in a context of trying to understand each other… hmmm

    thanks for stirring the conversation.

  • Linda

    Siljander said that during his tenure in Congress (1981-1987), he was angry when the Qur’an was read during the National Prayer Breakfast. He wrote to the Breakfast’s emcee: “How can you read the book of the devil at a prayer breakfast?”

    Afterward, however, he began to read the Qur’an himself, and was impressed: “I found out that Jesus was mentioned in the Quran 110 times, either directly or indirectly, and there was not a single word about Jesus that was horrible, disgraceful or, in my opinion, inconsistent with what the Bible says about him.”

    Oh really, Siljander found nothing in the Quran about Jesus that was horrible, disgraceful or inconsist with what the Bible had to say about Him? How about Jesus is God in human flesh, the Son of God, and that He died on the cross for our sins!

    Why any Christian would want to read, or recommend this book is beyond me.

  • Linda

    Can Siljander really say he found nothing in the Quran that was horrible, disgracful, or inconsistant with what the Bible had to say about Jesus when this is what the Quran says about Jesus:

    “Verily, the likeness of Jesus in God’s Sight is the likeness of Adam. He (God) created him from dust, then (He) said to him: ‘Be!’-and he was” (Quran 3:59).

    Pastor Richard, you are very wrong to recommend this book.

  • raincitypastor

    You surely know enough about both Christianity and Islam to express your reservations about the thesis of Siljander’s book. But I don’t think you know enough about Siljander’s book to declare that I’m very wrong to recommend it. It’s dangerous to recommend books one hasn’t read. It’s also dangerous to harshly judge a book by it’s cover, or by a few reviews.

  • Hannah

    Hi Linda, I am glad Richard reccomended this book and I am excited to read it and yes I am a “Christian.” The reason I would like to read it is I recently made friends that are muslims and other than being of a different religion they are normal, fun loving, peaceful people and I enjoy their friendship and differences. While we obviously share different beliefs I am pretty clueless about Islam and want to learn more about them. I have found in the the short time I have looked into their religion I have been challanged in my own about what I actually believe and why in a good way. I am not scared of other religions, I think if we want to reach others and share Christ we need to understand them as much as possible and not just force our own beliefs down their throat without knowing anything about them or what they believe. That is why a “Christian” might want to read this book.

  • Linda

    I know enough, and it is not hard for anybody that has both read the Bible and the Quran that when it comes to Jesus they are diametrically opposed to each other:

    Jesus is God in flesh (Col. 2:9).
    Jesus was crucified (1 Pet. 2:24).
    Jesus rose from the dead (John 2:19-20).
    Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

    Jesus is not God (5:17, 75).
    Jesus was not Crucified, (4:157).
    Jesus did not rise from the dead.
    Jesus was not the Son of God (9:30).

    Why recommend a book like this when the author is so blantently ignorant of essential doctrine concerning Jesus Christ? If he is not ignorant than how could he say:

    “I found out that Jesus was mentioned in the Quran 110 times, either directly or indirectly, and there was not a single word about Jesus that was horrible, disgraceful or, in my opinion, inconsistent with what the Bible says about him.”

  • Linda

    I am sure many and most Muslims are decent people, and a lot do not even know what the Quran says, just like many Christians do not know a lot about the Bible. I recommend that you read the Bible and the Quran to know more about Christianity and Islam. You can read both books online for free.

    Christians, Muslims, indeed all people have very much “in common”, in that we are all sinners before a holy God, and accountable to Him. We all need a Savior to save us from the penalty (eternal Hell) and power of sin, and the only Saviour is the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for sinners

  • Lamont

    I would suggest a peruse through Sam Shamouns website “Answering Islam” http://answering-islam.org/
    where you can listen to Sam debate, read articles, and, he has a great question answer section. Sam “Does” know Bible doctrine (unlike Siljander), and also the doctrines of the Koran. He was born in Kuwait, and speaks Arabic, without which, one would have little credibility w/any Muslim worth his salt when trying to interact with the text’s of the Koran. I can’t believe Muslims would take Mark Siljanders Aramaic seriously when it comes to the text of the Koran. Ever notice that when a Muslim quotes the Koran they repeat it in Arabic (not Aramaic)?
    There’s a reason for that!
    Please visit Sam Shamouns website. There are articles written by other X-tians, and, Muslim converts as well. You’ll get a better understanding of the way Muslims actually think, and that will be a great benefit to you when presenting the Gospel to your friends!.
    Sam has a solid Biblical foundation (unlike Siljander) and I think you’ll be impressed with his courage and trust in Gods Holy Word to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God…” 2 Cor 10:5

    Mark Siljander said on the video clip: ” The Other Holy Book,” that the term “EL” used in the O/T for God, was borrowed by the Jews from the Canaanites? Huh?
    (I wonder where the Canaanites got language from in the first place? Surely it wasn’t their god!)
    In another place when asked: “where in the Bible does it say that X-tians are supposed to convert others to X-tianity?” he say’s he draw’s a blank, then he leaves the listener wondering if we are to convert others to X-tianity? (make disciples?)
    Maybe Siljander thinks, like Billy Graham has stated before, that at the end of the day, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God?

  • Robert

    “Contempt prior to investigation”

  • raincitypastor

    HI Lamont… I’m actually trying to respond to the 2nd comment you made, where you ask some questions about El, etc. I definitely don’t agree w/ Siljander on every point – not by any stretch. However, what I found valuable, was his work in etymology. While I’ll quickly state that etymology has only limited value in the overall consideration of building our understanding of God, it does have some value. Thus, those who can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic have some things to offer to this conversation – and Mark has a good working knowledge of all three. — when we’re trying to discern differences between what Muslims say about Jesus and what the Bible says about Jesus, we’d do well to do our homework thoroughly – this is the point I derived from his book.

  • Lamont

    Did you read the introduction?
    Watch the video clips?

    Mark Siljander states:
    “I believed that Islam was a religion of violence, that the Qur’an preached the destruction of all non-Muslims, and that the Qur’an and Islam were of the devil, as godless as the great evil of communism whose defeat was then the defining purpose of American foreign policy. I believed that Islam and Christianity were contradictory at their core, that the Eastern Islamic and Western Judeo-Christian cultures were irretrievably opposed to one another, and that the only possible solution to this conflict was the conversion of “them” so they would come to think like “us.” My worldview could not have been clearer or simpler—or more myopic.
    in the years that followed I was led to question the truth of these axioms.

    In time, I learned that every one of them was utterly, categorically false. ” END quote.

    According to Mark Siljander, his above statements were all “UTTERLY CATEGORICALLY FALSE?”

    X-tianity and Islam are not “contradictory at their core?”
    (Does the term “TRINITY” mean anything?)

    The Quran and Islam are not of the devil?
    (If your not of Christ, your of the devil for sure!)

    Islam is not a godless religion? (Idolatry)
    It’s not evil?

    They need conversion, because they are under the wrath of Almighty God!

    If I am mis-interpreting something here please set me straight!
    But, if not….
    What does this say about Jerry Falwell’s hand picked “Pitbull of Evangelism” (their term not mine)Ergun Caner
    President of Liberty University Theological Seminary
    Who endorsed the book?
    Caner has claimed to have had over 61 debates w/Muslims, but , when called on the carpet to prove it…..
    Thank you Robert!
    It’s Okay to call someone’s bluff!
    I wouldn’t recommend this book because of the comments in the intro alone, let alone the items that Linda has rightly pointed out.

  • raincitypastor

    Hi Lamont… trying again to respond to your most recent comment but having a hard time from the tech side… anyway, having actually read the book, I believe that Mark would believe, as you and I do, that “Jesus is the only name under heaven whereby we must be saved”. This is my starting point in reading the book. I disagree w/ Mark on many points, and agree w/ him on several.

    Of greatest significance though, in my mind, is Mark’s challenge that we start listening, and learning to love those who differ w/ us by trying to understand what they actually believe. Mark’s involvement in communicating this way has been groundbreaking in developing relationships with Muslim nation’s leaders, and his style is, in my opinion in keeping with the teachings of Christ to love our enemies. It was after his meeting w/ Libya’s high officials that the instigators of the Lockerbie incident were extradited. Until then, all our strong armed attempts failed. Surely this is worth considering, in spite of disagreements on several points –

  • patricknygren

    Hey Richard, thanks for the recommendation. Also, thanks for understanding that just because someone holds different beliefs doesn’t mean that they are not worth having constructive dialogue and friendships with.

  • Lamont

    Hi Richard.
    I agree that we need to learn how to open up a dialogue. An “ice breaker” so to speak. That can be a barrier. I’m one of those people you’re talking about, since I’m not confident in talking w/a Muslim as I w/b w/a Morman etc… because of my ignorance of the Koran etc…. and believe I need to get on the ball!
    I went to the James White, Sabir Ally debate here in Seattle. I’ve watched & listened to debates by Sam Shamoan & others, so as to learn some things, and some reading. I do think I know more then Johnny and Susie church goer?
    As for the Biblical language’s…. That would be a major bonus! The’re are several people at the church I attend that know them, and at least three that know all three, plus Latin, and possible others?
    I’d say their are things to glean from Siljanders book, but, if I was shopping for one, the comments in his introduction would have made me pass it by.
    As we grow in our bible knowledge, our discernment level increases so that a person could pick up certain books and pick out the good fruit from the spoiled.
    I’ve steered people away from certain books because of a concern for their ability to separate the chaff from the wheat. We’ve probably all done that.
    I hadn’t lost the fact that your calling us love are enemy’s as well.
    Soli Dei Gloria!