How Christians Can ‘Learn the Language’ of Islam

Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve done a lot of travelling in Africa, the Middle East, and all around Europe. Needless to say, this necessitated navigating my way through language barriers.

One of my personal habits when I was travelling was to begin by learning how to say one phrase:

‘I don’t speak (insert language).’

Over the years I learned how to say it in French, Polish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, German, Spanish, and Catalan.

Even in places where everyone assured me that no one would speak English with me (like France), I found that starting a conversation with, say, a shopkeeper or  taxi driver with that phrase in the their language was a lot better than simply powering ahead in English.

Beyond that simple beginning, it was then a matter of daily adding to your vocabulary through interaction with the locals. I took to keeping a small notebook with me and writing down new vocabulary and phrases as they came up.

‘How do you say, “How much is this”?’

‘How do you say “Thank you”?’

‘What’s your word for “towel”?’

‘Do I use the same word if I’m speaking to a man or a woman?’

At bottom, you can always safely assume that there is a corresponding word or concept in the local language for the word or concept in yours; with a little bit of effort and interaction, you’ll figure out what it is.

I think the same goes for the broader task of approaching another culture or religion. As a theologian with experience working in the field of post-conflict reconciliation, I’ve been particularly interested for some time in the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the events of 11 September 2001, the rise of al-Qa’ida and ISIS and their oppression and massacres of religious minorities, the collapse of the Arab Spring and subsequent wars in Syria and Yemen, and the refugees desperate to reach stable countries in the Americas and Europe have all led to a great deal of tension and hostility between members of both faiths.

Many in the media and politics strenuously tell us that we must fear Muslims in our midst, and two terms keep being invoked to justify that fear:

jihād and sharīʿah.

Those terms leave so many Christians utterly freaked out, which is a real pity. Neither term appears in Christianity… But the ideas do; they’re just referred to differently.

Let’s look at jihād. In Arabic, ‘jihād’ means ‘striving’, ‘applying oneself’, ‘struggling’, ‘persevering’, and therefore can have violent or nonviolent connotations. It appears frequently in the Qur’an, most often to refer to the act of striving to serve the purposes of God on this earth (referred to as the ‘greater jihād’). Nevertheless, it can also refer to armed struggle against wrong doers and enemies of Islam (the ‘lesser jihād’).

Christian doctrine and practice has several similar concepts. As someone who spent years living and working within Evangelical and charismatic Christians, I was constantly hearing about ‘taking our cities for God’; ‘having dominion over every thought’; ‘building a Christ-centered society’; ‘spiritual warfare’; and ‘making war in the heavenlies’.

Also, in wake of recent US wars in the Middle East, even the militant aspects of jihād have cropped up in some expressions of right-wing Christianity, which has gloried in images of soldiers praying blessings on their ordnance…

Chaplain (Maj.) Ted Nicholson (center) prays with 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing maintenance troops at Balad Air Base, Iraq. During his deployment, he experienced different situations including helping out wounded soldiers at the Air Force Theater Hospital. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
Chaplain (Maj.) Ted Nicholson (center) prays with 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing maintenance troops at Balad Air Base, Iraq. During his deployment, he experienced different situations including helping out wounded soldiers at the Air Force Theater Hospital. (U.S. Air Force Photo)


And each other…

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- Airmen and Soldiers take a moment to pray for each other's safety before heading out for another day of convoy duty in Iraq. The Airmen run the convoys into Iraq and the Soldiers, in their armored trucks, escort them. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Campbell)
SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) — Airmen and Soldiers take a moment to pray for each other’s safety before heading out for another day of convoy duty in Iraq. The Airmen run the convoys into Iraq and the Soldiers, in their armored trucks, escort them. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Campbell)


Now let’s look at Sharīʿah. ‘Sharīʿah’ refers to the moral and religious legal system within Islam, derived both from the text of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In some predominantly-Muslim countries, Sharīʿah directly informs the legal system completely or in part; in others it runs in parallel to the secular code, but carries no legal weight.

Of course, Christianity has its own religious code of law and practice attached to it that may or may not be part of the secular legal code.

For example, there’s no law in the US, the UK, or Ireland prohibiting two unmarried consenting 30 year-olds from engaging in sexual relations; many Christians from a variety of denominations, however, would see it as a serious deviation from the biblical text and from Christian tradition and would insist that those two people get married first.

Even though the state would be satisfied with them going down to a court house, many Christians would see that as a poor substitute to a sacred ceremony performed by a pastor or priest in a church;

There’d be no law against serving alcohol after the service, but many Christians- citing the Bible- would frown; some churches wouldn’t allow the alcohol to be served on their premises…

The newlyweds might decide to use contraception for the first few years of their marriage; many Catholics would utterly oppose them, citing the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae vitae. But no legal action would be taken against the couple by the secular authorities, no matter how much the more dogmatic Catholics among us might wish it.

In all these examples we see the mixing of secular law and religious law in the lived experience of devout Christians, who wouldn’t use the Arabic terms jihād or ‘sharīʿah’, even though the principles are identical.

Many Christians- like many Muslims- would like to see their religious traditions made the law of the land, applicable to all, Christian or not; many more Christians- like many Muslims- are embarrassed and appalled at the very idea. Any Irish people remember growing up in ‘Holy, Catholic Ireland’, where Christian doctrine directly informed the legal code of all, regardless if they were Catholic or not. Ask any Dublin Protestant of a certain age about trying to buy condoms in the 50’s…

The point is this: it’s time for Christians to start learning the ‘language’ of Islam, humbly and respectfully, in all its complexity and nuance.

We’ll need to begin the process of figuring out how Islamic ideas and practices correspond to ones in our own faith.

We might find out that our ‘languages’ aren’t all that different; that we share many words, concepts, opinions, concerns, and aspirations.

If nothing else, we’ll probably all be a lot less freaked out…

Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and post-conflict expert. He blogs at

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

  • Theophile

    Hi Jon,

    Yes, I recommend that Christians should read the Quran a couple times AFTER they have read & reread their own Bible end to end, with particular attention to the books of Moses & the prophets.

    Then they will be able to point out to their Muslim acquaintances how Mohammed & the Quran claim that all Moses, & the prophets said is true. Then they can turn to Genesis & show how it was Issac that Abraham offered to The LORD, not Ishmael like the Quran says. … Apparently there is a revelation of the prophet FAIL concerning the ongoing world war over the birthright of Abraham… & a logic fail with the idea that the Quran & Mohammed can be trusted when Moses says their claims are false… even though they both claim Moses wrote the truth.

    There is a darn good reason The Bible is not allowed in Islamcentric countries, or Mecca.

  • rhodian

    I don’t think the writer is necessarily advocating getting to know a culture better in order to proselytise, but rather that with a little effort we can reduce tension and fear by coming to understand them better and seeing their humanity. And in understanding them, we might perhaps understand ourselves a little better too.

  • Theophile

    Hi rhodian

    You could argue that, except for the fact that the author focuses on “religious terms” of conquest & rule of law. The great commission of Christianity being the proselytizing with the gospel, & the prima-facia-apparent jihad in practice by ISIS & co of political domination, notwithstanding.

    Do you deny that the Arab descendants of Ishmael claim the birthright of Abraham to be theirs to this day… not the Hebrews that God gave His law to & lived among, who descended from Issac?

    If you “had’ read the Quran & The Bible you would know the birthright & promise of God to Abraham “is” the culture in question here.

  • Abucs

    quote …….
    “The newlyweds might decide to use contraception for the first few years of their marriage; many Catholics would utterly oppose them, citing the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae vitae. But no legal action would be taken against the couple by the secular authorities, no matter how much the more dogmatic Catholics among us might wish it……”

    What a load of bigoted rubbish.

    Many Catholics might disagree about using contraception in certain circumstances for themselves and wish to persuade others in dialogue on the grounds of mutual respect and responsibility in marriage, but to say they would “utterly oppose” those that do use contraception and that “dogmatic Catholics” (whatever the writer means by this) would want the secular authorities to take legal action against them” is so far removed from reality that i wonder which planet the writer comes from.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Contraception was illegal in Ireland from 1935 until 1980, when it was legalised with strong restrictions, later loosened. The ban reflected Catholic teachings on sexual morality.

  • Teddybear

    Does anyone ask why Islam is now ‘the enemy’? I grew up in the 70’s/80’s and Islam was just another religion. Now it’s a bogeyman.

    Are we being played ? Are we meant to be scared by this paper tiger so that we wouldn’t mind increased surveillance and draconian illiberal laws etc?

    I sometimes wonder

  • rhodian

    Hi Theophile

    I think that the author has addressed those terms specifically since they are Arabic terms which are particularly well recognised in the West and which provoke a reaction of fear and suspicion. The author proceeds to suggest (as I read it) that these terms are in fact no more worthy of suspicion or fear than many of the things that evangelical Christians say every day.

    I have not read the Quran because my Arabic is extremely weak (but it’s getting better!).

    I don’t understand why I would want to deny anything about the Arab descendants of Ishmael and the birthright of Abraham. I don’t know what your point is at all.

    Nice to meet you.

  • Brian O’Neill

    My take on it is after the USSR fell the military industrial complex needed a new enemy. They looked around and the muslims got the short straw.

  • Abucs

    We are a democracy. There is nothing wrong with having restrictions on contraception if it overwhelmingly reflects the views of a countries citizens whether it reflects Catholic teachings or not.

    We are a democracy. There is nothing wrong with removing restrictions on contraception if it overwhelmingly reflects the views of a countries citizens whether it reflects secular Academic Progressive teachings or not.

    “Dogmatic Catholics” among us (sic) are not wishing secular authorities to take legal action against people who use contraception.

    That is a load of bigoted rubbish.

    Dogmatic Catholics (whatever the writer means by this) are not some weird cult who disrespect democracy and want civil authorities to go after people using contraception against the views of the democratic society.

    Could you give me any examples of “Dogmatic Catholics” (sic) wishing the civil authorities to take legal action against couples using contraception and thus rejecting the democratic will of the Irish people as expressed in law?

  • Susan Strouse

    “it’s time for Christians to start learning the ‘language’ of Islam, humbly and respectfully, in all its complexity and nuance.” – I absolutely agree.
    We Christians must also examine our own language and how differently we interpret certain words. A good place to start is “Speaking Christian” by Marcus Borg.

  • Theophile

    Nice to meet you too, it sounds like your Arabic is better than mine(I am only proficient in the numbers), I have read parallel English translations of the Quran, but I understand that it was written as Arabic poetry, & even the text mentions it being written exclusively in Arabic.
    The Quran makes the claim that all Moses wrote was true, but then recalls the history of Abraham, God, Issac, & Ishmael differently than what Moses wrote. There is a reason that Bibles are forbidden in Islamic theocracies.

  • Theophile

    I understand that you are not a US state citizen… Because the US founding fathers specifically EXCLUDED the word “mob-rule’ er, I mean “democracy” from the constitution, yes, they were well aware of what a democracy was as they had read Plato’s account of Socrates…. have you?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Hi Teddybear

    I recommend Adam Curtis’ documentary ‘The Power of Nightmares’ for starters.

    It’s on YouTube.

  • Abucs

    I think you’ll find ‘Mob rule’ are two words, not one word and I am pretty sure the US founding fathers didn’t exclude those words. There is a difference between excluding words and not including them. I am pretty sure the US founding fathers didn’t include the word ‘Pakistan’ in their constitution, but it would be incorrect to say they excluded the word ‘Pakistan. Not that any of that is particularly relevant here.

    I have read some of both Plato and Socrates. Again, not that it is particularly relevant here.

  • Theophile

    Notwithstanding, the word democracy does not appear in the US constitution…on purpose.

    “Democracy is the most vile form of government. … democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as the have been violent in their deaths.”
    — James Madison (1751-1836) Father of the Constitution, 4th President of the U. S

    “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few.”
    — John Adams (1797-1801)

    “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
    — Thomas Jefferson..apparently a prophet!

  • Abucs

    If you want to criticise democracy as a form of government i recommend you find a blog post that is more suited to your argument.

    I’ll leave you with the thought that Prophet (sic) Thomas Jefferson’s quote above is really criticising a Progressive Left leaning ‘socialism-light’ form of democracy.

    On that criticism and warning by prophet (sic) Thomas Jefferson, I agree very much with him. You will find no argument from me on that ‘prophecy’.

    btw, have you been following the democratic process in the U.S. for electing their next President?

  • Theophile

    … The US election 2016 would be the best evidence that the founding fathers warnings of democracy have been ignored.

    I think it’s safe to say that the effects of removing math, science, history, & reading comprehension skills from public education are evident, taking into consideration the jokes the US electorate have to “choose” from, and support for their next president of Obama-nation.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    There is also the issue that Islam was being played against each other by both sides at the end of the Cold war, and this cynical “militarisation” of Islam provided the grounds for “career development” by those left high and dry.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Always willing to help direct another seeker after wisdom to Adam’s documentaries:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Like virtually everything else humans create, “Democracy” is not immune to serious abuses. Have you encountered J.L Talmon’s 1952 book “The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy”?:

    “Indeed, from the vantage point of the mid twentieth century the history of the last hundred and fifty years looks like a systematic preparation for the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian Messianic democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of to-day consists.”

    Even truer now sixty four years after it was first published, and something that anyone who cares about “empirical and liberal democracy” ignores only at a great cost. Watch “Adam Curits’s “The Century of the Self” perhaps, too, especially part IV.

  • Abucs

    I’m not a fan of Freud. Will look at it on the weekend if i get the chance.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You and me both, Abucs, on Freud. Here’s a free view link to part IV:

    But it’s well worth the four hours it takes to watch the unfolding series from the beginning. I myself read Edward Bernays’ work after working in advertising myself, and his utter contempt for the idea of personal freedom is as striking as that of B.F. Skinner, yet another of those whose theories (“Beyond Freedom and Dignity”) have become very significant in marketing technique. As is so often said, but seldom taken very seriously, “the price of freedom is constant vigilance.”

  • Abucs

    OK, going out now. I will look at the whole thing. I know about Skinner from my days studying ‘Behavioural Sciences’ in Education.

    Like one of the topics i think you’re raising, most people agree with what they ‘are supposed to’. Lot’s of students disagreed with Skinner in private but figured the professors must like him so wrote papers in favour of him. After writing the papers they convinced themselves that they actually might like him.

    I remember criticising Skinner severely in a paper i wrote and received a top mark. Perhaps I should have been more disagreeable. 🙂

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As an embryonic historian I had a similar experience, Abucs. My “Bandon Protestant” history master at A Level adored Churchill, and as he had boxed during his time in the forces I used to get the odd hard punch from behind on my left ear just as he walked round the room returning prep essays, where, in mine, I’d strongly criticised the first Duke of Marlborough. But I did get high marks regularly, as he seemingly enjoyed the arguments.

    I was about when “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” first came out and followed the debate at the time. I read it in hardcover my uncle bought with mounting rage at what even as a callow youth I saw as quite insidious conclusions. Some of this I’d find in an earlier form in Bernays’ work when I read him later. Certainly the attempts already mentioned to control my essay writing behaviour had failed…….

  • Abucs

    I would disagree strongly with the politics of the narrator.

    Where i would sort of agree is :

    1. Too many people can have their own value systems shaped and reshaped to a surprising degree.

    2. Democratic politics has been captured by short term and emotionally manufactured considerations.

    3. Because of this, for the first time in history reshaping people’s own values is necessary for one’s own political advantage.

    4. This has caused information (truth) and education to be seen as tools to reshape people’s values. I believe a value system that does not see truth and education as ‘ends’ but ‘means to politics’ becomes insane very quickly.

    So what we have now is the situation where people’s values have been shaped and reshaped not by intelligent reason and dialogue but by getting people to attach emotions to politics. This is done both in school and through the media.

    The ‘Loony’ Left have been the worst offenders IMHO.

    For example, the linking of a big government welfare state to compassion and thus portraying any opposition as greedy, narrow minded and authoritarian. This creates a constant emotional resistance that for many people ‘trumps’ any attempt at reasoned argument as to what might actually be compassionate.

    The linking of ‘equality’ to politics is today’s biggest use of this emotional brain-washing technique IMHO.

    Another example is justifying as ‘righteous’ the annual theft of money by way of the taxation system to create a compassionate utopia that never actually arrives but is always promised if we can just thieve that little bit more money from (somebody else).

    The narrator portrayed the choice between an individualistic selfish value of society on one hand (largely right wing) and a collective compassionate value of society on the other (largely left wing). He suggested democracy ensured the advent of the first set of values.

    I would argue that while he may be correct in his view of democracy favouring the first set of values, the big government leftish model does not create a compassionate society but a controlled one that when it catches up to reality, fails economically and socially.

    Looking at the 4 hour video history of 20th century psychiatry, what stands out for me is that when people look for ultimate meaning on the human level, in remaking man, remaking society, freeing people, etc etc, repression, social breakdown and insanity seems to closely follow.

    In my Christian culture, science, medicine, education, charity and welfare were created by people in a culture of transcendent self sacrifice. I see the take over of this Christian culture by the humanist Left as one that will ultimately destroy compassion, freedom and progress.

    Even as they condition people to emotionally believe that their manufactured morality is the same as compassion, freedom and progress.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    This is far, far too short a response, Abucs, and I’ll try and come back on detail, but in a very general manner, despite seeing myself on the left, I’d pretty much agree with the outline of what you are saying, especially the paragraph before the last. But then, my liberalism that oI’ve pretty much inherited from my ancestors has never been at all keen at signing up to ideologies!

  • Abucs

    One thing i would add Sean is that in a fully functioning, healthy society, the need for government is greatly reduced.

    So for government to protect its importance, or for those that wish to change society through the permanent dictate of government, there is a huge incentive to create a disfunctional, unhealthy society.

    As my Chinese physiotherapist has observed, government does not want to solve problems, government wants to manage problems, forever and a day, with your money.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Abucs, I was exposed at an early age to Prince Kropotkin’s “mutual aid” and accordingly have always distrusted any form of centralisation of the lives and freedoms of people. As you have said, there are other, more community oriented ways to protect the weak, and as to centralised law. From what you are saying in both postings I can now see just how relevant linking Adam Curtis’s fourth documentary was, with its highlighting of the degree of contempt that modern politicians have for the very concept of democracy.

    Have you encountered Ernest Gellner’s work on Nationalism, with its vivid analysis of the centralising and homogenising nature of all modern states, and the particular the stage in which the “pirate” identity issues and politicise them in order to legitimise the centralisation project while falsely reassuring those who worry about this that their particular interests and identities are “safe in their hands”?

  • Abucs

    Do you have a link Sean?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Delighted to help Abucs. For Kropotkin, this is a link to a free PDF of “Mutual Aid” on Gutenburg:

    Regarding Gellner, Wikipedia do a decent synopsis of his work:

    I’d recommend these particular books if you are either buying or looking in an academic library, “Nations and Nationalism”:

    And from what we were discussing, “Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals”:

    I hope that you enjoy his work.