Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Communicating Christ Across Cultural Barriers

By Angela Arafat

We tend to forget that a large portion of what we say isn’t in the words we speak but in how we inflect the tone, the setting, our hand gestures and the speed in how we say it. We have to become more mindful of our communication to be really effective at doing it. How someone might understand what we are saying might be very different than what we think we are saying. We can often be amazed at how we are understood even by our peers much less across cultural lines. How often do we hear people in the media complain that what they said was taken out of context? And while we often show them no mercy because of their positions we should look at our own way of blurting out things and wonder that anyone keeps us as friends. Paul said it best when he wrote of speaking without love in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Easterner 1) has an ingrained respect for the power of the word. Arabs especially have an ancient tradition of the love of poetry even in the days where literacy was rare. The power of the spoken word was never to be taken for granted. Because of the Islamic laws that frown on making any graven images 2) other art forms have been stifled and artistic creativity focused on to the art of literature and story telling. Here in the West our casual dealing with the language is renowned, even the most conservative of news organizations use butchered grammar and slang. These differences reflect what is important to the people.

When we communicate across cultural barriers things become a lot more complex. Awareness of these little nuances in communication can make the difference in how we are understood. When crossing these barriers one should also be aware that just because a person speaks your language easily, doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand it at the same high speed rate that they speak it. Being sensitive to this can go a long way. Because of these differences especially between the Western mind and the Eastern mind I hope to point out some of my own observations to possibly clear the water between the two ways of approaching open communication.

In the West we are trained to think in a very linear way, using a lined out logic to everything that we approach. All of my notes from college, for instance are linear, laid out in an outline format with three points to each point in the lectures, and many public speakers address their audiences in this format. Preaching classes stress this aspect as a way to be sure that audiences are able to remember more of what is said. This is a method of sending people home with the message that they might remember longer, with catchy acronyms and such. But this is a Western method of communicating. Even looking at the ways that we are taught in our churches on how to share the Gospel we see that it is often very much a Western approach. For instance, let us look at the approach of the Roman Road which goes something like this: All have sinned, thus we all need redemption to clear our sin, thus we all need a redeemer, thus God sent a redeemer, thus if we believe on Him we have life and redemption through His sacrifice. Very linear, logical, Roman and therefore Western. However, we have a Semitic Eastern example that we often don’t use and that is Christ Himself and how He communicated. (I have often wondered if our hesitation to use His methods come from the fact that we as Westerners are often a little baffled by it ourselves, thus leaving us uncomfortable.) But the Easterner, oh they will know His methods and remember His stories, His parables, His ways, because He is one of them. So let us untie our hands from the traditional methods of sharing the Gospel, because these traditions came from sharing in our own culture and are not the only way.

The Eastern method of communication is what is commonly referred to as a circular thought process. It is emotionally oriented, and often filled with stories and side add-ons. In the West one might hear this method and think of this as “chasing rabbits”, but in the East each “rabbit” has a point in the story that is being established. Each side story to the main theme has the function to add color and vibrance to the way the story is told. The Easterner will often embellish his tale with exaggerated emphasis on the spectacular and be admired for doing a good job at this, while in the West he might be seen as not being honest. The Easterner believes that the details and the color of the story matter almost as much as the point, as the ability to tell the story would be a waste without creating the detail. Women are often known to be more circular in their thoughts, emotional in their communication. Communication with the Easterner might take up a lot more time than what the Westerner is accustomed to. Westerners are often eager to get to the point, make it and drive it home. While the Easterner is more interested in the journey than the point itself. The reasons for communication for the Easterner will be often part of the bonding process, sharing simply to share, whereas the Western mind often has goals in mind.  Jesus used these methods all the time in how He communicated throughout the Gospels, answering questions with stories and vivid imagery that all those who heard could understand. The simple farmer to the brightest scholar went home with a penetrating message that he not only could understand but which would be able to be delved into time and time again for new insights. This Eastern method makes for a more lasting impression on the memory and thus the story told might come back to the mind many years later and find root in a new environment. The goal of communication should be to build a relationship, not just to make a point.

Our bodies are filled with subtle messages that communicate to the listener or watcher quite a bit that we may not be aware of. Building a general awareness of our non-verbal communication is a must for effective communication in any setting, but even more vital when trying to reach across cultural barriers. Our hand gestures are messages that we are often unaware of and can be the most commonly misunderstood communication when crossing cultural lines. What might be a simple flick of the hair in the Western setting might be perceived as flirtation or arrogance in the East. Many of us like to talk with our hands and while this is generally a reasonable practice of expression it should be used with caution when trying to share with new cultures. Eye contact is also very different in the East and West, in the West eye contact shows respect and listening, whereas in the East it might be threatening or possible flirtation if done across gender barriers. Winks and tongue gestures are almost universally misunderstood and must be avoided. There are also differences in our perceived notions of personal space, the Easterner will be quite comfortable in close proximity to his-her friend and may even touch during conversations. This is especially difficult for the Western male, who is often not comfortable with any physical contact or getting physically close to any other male. The voice inflection will also be something that might raise questions, as many Easterners converse with passion and rambunctious enthusiasm, where a Westerner might feel that the conversation might have taken an angry tone. Awareness that these differences are there can help avoiding embarrassment and misunderstanding. How we dress communicates quite a bit to our society about who we are and what we care about. It also may not communicate the same thing to the different culture. Dealing with our own ideas of modesty and dress is often a prickly subject for many of us as we don’t like to consider that we are inappropriately dressing for one; women especially can be sensitive to feeling controlled by dress standards and we also take a great deal of personal pride in our own expression in our dress. As a woman I understand this well, but in dealing with the Muslim world I have come to understand that showing a bit of respect for basic modesty can go along way. I haven’t found any Muslim who particularly wanted me to be in a hijab (hair covering) but they were more comfortable if I had on sleeved shirts and looser fitting clothing. One should weigh these questions carefully in prayer and ask that the Lord show where one might improve. While these little notes might not cover everything that might confuse in the conversation with the Easterner, I prayerfully hope to just bring them to mind to avoid any undue stress in a conversation between you and your Eastern friend.

Any sharing must begin with mutual respect and a trusting relationship. One must first look into one’s own heart and investigate how we feel about this individual and their faith. Given the climate towards Muslims because of politics and world affairs, one should be extremely thoughtful about one’s own agendas and feelings before an approach on faith is made. In this we must see if our motive is from the Lord and not for the sake of an argument. Our cause is not to prove another’s beliefs as wrong, but to reflect what Christ Jesus has done in us, giving hope not tearing down. One must speak in love or will be heard as a clanging bell.

A basic custom that will be appreciated in any respectful relationship with your Muslim friend will be that of treating the texts that are considered holy with reverence. In the Western Christian home one might find up to 20 Bible sitting here and there and we often treat them with extreme casualness in our comfort with them. This lack of special regard for our Bible translates a very strong message to our Muslim friends, that we don’t see it as a holy and sacred book. In a Muslim home the Quran is found often on the highest shelf, sometimes even with its own stand and is always touched with reverence. While the Hadith do not hold this esteemed position they are also treated gently and always kept in a high locale in the home. Knowing this, one should NEVER place one’s Bible on the floor or be too casual in its handling in front of a Muslim. Please also remember to show respect to the Muslim texts as a sign of respect for your friend.

The breaking of bread together cannot be overrated. This, within the Eastern society, is a deep-seated sign of trust and respect. We should be open to inviting our Muslim friends into our home or inviting them out to dinner and offering them hospitality with eagerness. When one has shared a meal with an Easterner there is a bond that is formed, and offering the best hospitality that you have to offer will show that you wish to honor him and he will likewise wish to honor you. Upon inviting, be prepared to show your best and also be sensitive to the Muslim dietary rules. 3) Do try to avoid comments that will place a distance between you and your Muslim friend such as jokes about what you might have heard about Eastern table manners or diet. (One would think this is obvious, but sadly to some it is not.) Also of note, avoid having pets at the dining area as this can be a big cultural taboo for many from the East and can be considered quite offensive. Hot drinks should be enjoyed after the meal with lively discussion.

Whether we like to admit it or not, sharing our faith is an act of intimacy. In this world of evangelism by leaving tracts everywhere we go, approaching strangers, knocking on doors, this isn’t recognized enough. What God has done in your life is particularly yours. Because of this and cultural factors men should only approach men, and women should only approach women. The barrier between the sexes is a presence that we must recognize and respect. If in a group setting, a woman should not be the lead in the discussion, but a support. If one has already crossed this line, it is time to pull back and pray for that person to have a person of the same gender cross their path so that the work might continue in the Muslim heart, but do not continue in an endeavor across the gender lines. It should be remembered that deep bonds are set into our emotional connections when we seek the deeper things in life with one another. Prayer together, for instance, can be more revealing to the real person than being physically intimate. Our faith crosses from our intellect and into the core of our very being in a unique way that should be honored. Many of us love a stirring debate and Easterners are also eager to enjoy the enthusiasm and fire of a good debate. While I enjoy this stimulation as much as anyone I think, I fear that as we often resort to this method in our sharing of faith we can stumble into a competition instead of a heart to heart sharing of what is vital to our faith. Intellect is a beautiful thing and it must be respected in our journey and sharing, but it will only take us so far into our faith. Eventually we have to reach deeper into the spiritual level to really share what Christ is doing in our lives, and if we have blocked our communication by winning points in argument we will have lost the race. Relationships aren’t built on lively debates but in sharing our lives. Visits over coffee or dinner and sharing what is important to us are a must to build the trust relationships.

One of the major errors any Christian might make when sharing with a Muslim is that of being disrespectful of the Muslim faith. Finding the popular ‘faults’ and firing these at your Muslim friend will be nothing but destructive. Muhammad, for instance, should be spoken of with the utmost respect and not demeaned in any way or they will be completely turned away from you and what you have to share. Let the Spirit do the revealing on tender issues and do not seek to press someone to accept what might seem obvious to your eyes. There are many things to respect in the person of Muhammad, the man accomplished an amazing feat of uniting a tribal country into one that was able to take on the Byzantine Empire, united Arabs under one God as opposed to many and rejected common practices in Arabia such as killing baby girls at birth. His impact as a simple Arab did change the world and their love for him borders on adoration.  One will never accomplish respect with mocking and condescension. Western communication has developed a strong taste for sarcasm, biting wit and ironic humor but these methods of communication do not communicate respect for the listener and do not communicate Christ. There is never any purpose in belittling our friends. As Christians we should avoid these methods of driving home a point as points in a conversation aren't really what we hope to achieve in a personal relationship. We often don't realize that our own pride in where we were blessed to be born and raised often comes into our speech as well and should also be avoided. We should also be very cautious when bringing up points about violence in the Quran and in Islam in general, as these are statements that will bring about a need for defense and will bring doubts to your Muslim friend’s mind about your sincerity and how you see him/her in the light of their faith. The Muslim often lives with a slight paranoia about how others outside see them, while this is largely due to the media’s attention on the negative, it is also part of the cultural upbringing in the East. While scholars on both sides discuss these matters and many other controversial subjects in Islam in an extensive way (and it has it's place in the defense of the faith and for education) it is best to keep your sharing on a personal level. Tearing down another's faith isn't the goal in personal relation sharing, but allowing them to see Christ in YOU as a person makes your faith real and therefore a viable one to look into.

When respect has been established in a relationship between a Muslim and yourself, the next step is to begin to share what God has done in your life. This can be done on a simple day to day life basis and the sharing of one’s testimony in a more encompassing sense. What one has experienced as an individual relating to the Lord is not a point that can be argued or debated, but shared. Your life is the witness and testimony to the reality of the difference between every other religion out there. No one can argue your experience and what the Lord has done in your life. Every Christian should be able to say with confidence, “I Know WHO I have believed in!” This sharing will open doors about how the Muslim might encounter God. He/she will begin to see differences in how we relate to our Father and will possibly even begin asking for prayer. This also offers us a great opportunity of personal growth as well, as we look back over our lives and can see His hand in so many little things in our lives. Often real conversions come in times of crisis, as the Muslim sees how our Father comes to the aid of His beloved children. Be real with these friends, please don’t give easy answers and quick scripture responses but share from the heart.

Be patient. No sincere Muslim has ever crossed into faith in Christ in a moment’s encounter. Be ready to just be the beginning of his/her journey to faith. Most converts that we know will explain how many years of small encounters and struggles compiled to make the case for leaving Islam. A Muslim sees conversion as almost as difficult as changing one’s skin color. And indeed, a true conversion is a heart transplant for us all! There are many myths within Islam and misunderstandings. Establishing your friendship is based on mutual respect and not out of the desire to change his/her life but one of acceptance will take time and effort. One of the myths that will have to be addressed is that of the true Muslim never leaving Islam. They believe it doesn’t happen, and those who claim to be converts are really just Christians who have made up stories. One should be ready with real examples of converts and their stories as these are always eye opening.  A classic misunderstanding is that of the Muslim world view on Christian missions. Muslims are taught from an early age that aid that reaches the Muslim world is tainted with agendas from the Christian west. Christian missions have often been seen as infiltrators, and many believe that Christians pay Muslims to become Christians. Some of these accusations are not far from true, so be ready to deal with these questions that might arise. Be ready to just be honest in that mistakes have been made in the past, but you are interested in your friend as an individual and not a project.

Focus on what you share on Christ Himself. His parables will be very memorable and just let the text speak the story. The Sermon on the Mount is an excellent introduction to our Christian faith, the principles are so unique and revolutionary to the Eastern Muslim mind. Notice the reactions of the outsiders as Jesus began His ministry and He spoke with such authority. These reactions will often be mirrored in the Easterner as they read the Gospel. Also the Psalms are incredibly attractive, but be sure to get the best translation that keeps the poetry intact, as the poetry is vital to the Easterner’s respect.

There are classic questions that any Muslim will bring up in a conversation about religions. Their biggest concern is that of the Christian belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. 4) Many Christians learn little methods of dealing with how they see the Trinity, such as the egg, or apple comparisons. But this will not be adequate to address this critical issue. Do not push this, as the Lord will reveal this in His time. Just be clear in your conversation that you do not see them as three gods, as this is the critical misunderstanding that many Muslims have. One can easily refer to Jesus as the Messiah, a Word from God, and a Spirit from God, as these are all mentioned in the Quranic text. Most Muslims respect the Bible but fear that it has been tainted by both Jewish and Christian hands for too long. They are often given instruction in how to point out discrepancies that matter little to the real message of the Gospel. They are also pointed to Biblical Old Testament texts of wars and killings to justify the Quran in its own violent texts.

Avoid political discussions like the plague. Even if you can agree on some points, there will always be a huge barrier between the two cultures on the political situations. These are often personal and highly explosive topics, and will build no bridges but resentments. 2 Timothy 2:23 says to avoid foolish arguments and this is one of them. This includes the topic of Israel and the Palestinian conflict, the issue of who belongs where and who is mistreating whom will end in heated arguments and not leave a ground for planting seeds. One has to remember that how an Easterner will see politics will be impacted by their own experiences, and how their media have portrayed it, just as our feelings will be similarly impacted.

Above all, follow the Lord’s leading in any witnessing endeavor. Too often we as Christians feel compelled that we are supposed to be doing something but what we should be is living something. Our lives are the biggest impact on any witnessing success, so simply live Him. Live Him and He will do the work. Live Him and they will be drawn to you.

My friends I would be happy to hear from you and your perspectives. You can contact me at the address given here.



1) The usage of the term Easterner throughout this article will be meant to express those people who have the cultural background in what is known as the Middle East region. While many customs of the Middle East pervade into Central Asia, Africa, India and the Far East as Islam pervaded these areas as well, some customs may differ considerably. It should be noted that my experience deals largely with the Middle Eastern Arab/Persian Easterner.

2) Quran: Al-Anbiya 21:51-54 “And indeed We bestowed aforetime on Ibrâhim (Abraham) his (portion of) guidance, and We were Well-Acquainted with him (as to his Belief in the Oneness of Allâh, etc.).When he said to his father and his people: "What are these images, to which you are devoted?" They said: "We found our fathers worshipping them." He said: "Indeed you and your fathers have been in manifest error."”

Hadith: Al-Bukhari 3:428  “While I was with Ibn 'Abbas a man came and said, "O father of 'Abbas! My sustenance is from my manual profession and I make these pictures." Ibn 'Abbas said, "I will tell you only what I heard from Allah's Apostle . I heard him saying, 'Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to put life in it.' " Hearing this, that man heaved a sigh and his face turned pale. Ibn 'Abbas said to him, "What a pity! If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other unanimated objects."”

Hadith Al-Bukhari 4:47 “I stuffed for the Prophet a pillow decorated with pictures (of animals) which looked like a Namruqa (i.e. a small cushion). He came and stood among the people with excitement apparent on his face. I said, "O Allah's Apostle! What is wrong?" He said, "What is this pillow?" I said, "I have prepared this pillow for you, so that you may recline on it." He said, "Don't you know that angels do not enter a house wherein there are pictures; and whoever makes a picture will be punished on the Day of Resurrection and will be asked to give life to (what he has created)?"

3) Islamic law prohibits a Muslim from consuming alcohol, eating or drinking blood and its by-products, and eating the meat of a carnivore or omnivore, such as pork, monkeys, canines, and felines (piscivorous animals however are not considered carnivorous). (Quran 5:3, 5:90). Crab meat is also seen as prohibited by some, but the majority of Muslims consider all shellfish (including crabs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, and all non-poisonous mollusks) to be halal (allowed).

4) Quran:  The Table  5:72-73 “They indeed are disbelievers those who say, ‘Indeed God is the Messiah, son of Mary’. For the Messiah said, to them, ‘O Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord, for, I am a servant and not a god. Verily he who associates anything with God, in worship, for him God has made Paradise forbidden, He has forbidden him admittance to it, and his abode shall be the Fire; and for wrongdoers there shall be no helpers’, to guard them against the chastisement of God. They are indeed disbelievers those who say, ‘God is the third of three’, gods, that is, He is one of them, the other two being Jesus and his mother, and they [who claim this] are a Christian sect; when there is no god but the One God. If they do not desist from what they say, when they declare a trinity, and profess His Oneness, those of them who disbelieve, that is, who are fixed upon unbelief, shall suffer a painful chastisement, namely, the Fire.”

5) Quran:  Women 4:171  “O People of the Scripture, the Gospel, do not go to extremes, do not go beyond the bounds, in your religion and do not say about God except, the saying of, the truth, such as exalting Him above any associations with a partner or a child: the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word which He cast to, [which] He conveyed to, Mary, and a spirit, that is, one whose spirit is, from Him...”