An Evening with Edinburgh University Islamic Society

I recently had the privilege of speaking at Edinburgh University. This time though, it was not at any of the campus Christian groups, but at the Edinburgh University Islamic Society. The way that meeting came about is remarkable! One of my old Canadian colleagues was holidaying in Edinburgh and whilst there, went on a walking tour. The tour was led by a Muslim university student and my friend happened to remark to her that “My old colleague Andy Bannister is based here in Scotland now, and he’s unusual because he’s a Christian but his PhD is in Islamic Studies.” This woman was fascinated and said, “Maybe we should get Andy to come and speak to our Islamic Society at some point, because we are trying to do more events where we engage with people of other faiths” and they exchanged contact details. Four months later, an email landed on my desk from the Islamic Society saying, “We’re having an inter-faith week, and would I be interested in sharing and engaging with them?” And I said, “Of course!”
The talk I came and gave to the Muslim audience at the university was titled “Mutual Misunderstandings Between Christians and Muslims”. Over the course of 45 minutes, I took three common misunderstandings that Christians often have about Muslims, and then three misunderstandings that Muslims often have about Christians.


First, we examined the fact that many Christians think that all Muslims are violent, which is not fair or accurate understanding of Islam. Yes, there are some jihadi groups in Islam, but they are not the only ones.
Second, I looked at the way that Christians misunderstand Islam and politics. In the West, we tend to separate religion and politics, religion and state; by contrast, Islam doesn’t tend to make those distinctions. Muhammad was both a political and a religious leader and so in Islam those two categories are combined and that confuses many Christians.
Third, I spoke about how Christians misunderstand the Muslim view of Muhammad; sometimes Christians mistakenly think that Muslims worship Muhammad, which of course they don’t. At the same time, Christians often don’t understand the huge respect and love for Muhammad that Muslims have, which is why they get so angry when he is attacked or insulted, or people draw cartoons of him.


Having looked at ways Christians sometimes misunderstand Islam, I shifted to talking about the three major misunderstandings that many Muslims have about Christians, and I think these are deeper and more significant.
I began by tackling the fact that many Muslims tend assume that all Westerners are Christian. That means Muslims often look at the things that are wrong in the West (e.g. sexual immorality, violence etc.) and think that those things are ‘Christian.’ So we disentangled that a little bit. At the same time, many Muslims fail to appreciate that for Christians, conversion is a personal decision. You are not a Christian because you were born in a Christian country, or born to Christian parents; rather you have to have a personal point of deciding to follow Christ to be a Christian. So that gave me the opportunity to share what commitment to Christ looks like.
The second Muslim misunderstanding of Christianity is that they misunderstand the Bible. They frequently think that it has been corrupted and changed. However, I showed the Muslims in Edinburgh that that idea is not actually in the Qur’an (which strongly affirms the Bible in many verses)—rather  it is an idea that developed about 200 years later in Islam, arising  during the debates between Muslims and Christians in the 2nd century of Islam. In fact, if Muslims took their own Qur’an seriously, it would challenges them to take the Bible seriously. I also talked the audience through a lot of the recent critical work on the early manuscripts of the Qur’an, which reveal the many textual variants and scribal changes in the early text. Many Muslims assume they have a “perfect text” with no difficult textual issues—I gently deconstructed that assumption.
And third and finally, I spoke about how Muslims often misunderstand Jesus. Many Muslims think that Christians have taken a mere man and elevated him to a position of deity. I said that that actually fails to understand the words of Jesus himself: the reason that Christians believe what we do about Jesus because of his own words and actions. Many of Jesus’s words would have been blasphemous if he wasn’t God (such as forgiving sin, for example). All of Jesus’s claims about himself culminate in Jesus’s trial before Caiaphas the High Priest, where Jesus was outrightly accused of blasphemy and asked, “Are you the Son of God?” Rather than say, “no”, Jesus quoted Daniel chapter 7, about the Son of Man coming on the clouds of glory, which is an incredible passage which claims divinity. When Caiaphas heard this, he tore his robe, and cried, “Blasphemy!” and sentenced Jesus to death. So, Jesus’s whole life and ministry was about this claim that he is more than a man, and of course the authorities knew what he was claiming and crucified him for it. Now if Jesus has stayed dead that would have been that, but he rose from the dead three days later, the divine vindication of the claims Jesus had made.


It was an incredible privilege to be standing in front of an almost entirely Muslim audience, unpacking the scriptures and sharing about Jesus. After the talk, we launched straight into the Q&A and it was very friendly, but pretty lively! Many of the Muslim audience had never heard any of this stuff, more than one of them saying they’d never heard a Christian explain and defend what Christians believed.
Perhaps the topic that drew the most the questions were the critical issues on the Qur’an. Muslims are fond of pointing to textual variants in biblical manuscripts, but I simply pointed out that all ancient texts have variants in their manuscripts, including the Qur’an (I have 3,000 or more on my computer, easily accessible and browsable through the Qur’an Gateway software package). The question is not “does a text have variants?” but “has the scholarship been done to ensure we can trust the text we have today?” Christians have always been open and honest about our manuscripts and indeed it is Christians who have built the best tools for studying biblical manuscripts. By contrast, Muslims have tended to ignore or hide the issues in early Qur’an manuscripts, which is why we are only finally now seeing good computer databases of early Qur’an manuscript variants made available. When I put some of these textual variants up on PowerPoint slides in Edinburgh, there were at times almost audible gasps from the audience who had never seen these kind of problems in their earliest manuscripts.
Overall, the talk in Edinburgh was a wonderful opportunity to engage our Muslim friends. I have been dialoguing and engaging with Muslims for over 20 years now, and they are always wonderfully welcoming, friendly people—who often ask fantastically good questions. I’ve been asked to come and speak again for them and I look forward to that. Too often Christians avoid Muslims or are afraid of them, thus it’s hardly surprising that many Muslims have no idea what the Christian faith really is.

If you’d like to think about how you can share your faith and talk about Jesus with Muslim friends or colleagues, I can highly recommend the book Reaching Muslims: A One-Stop Guide for Christians by my friend Nick Chatrath.