Is it Legitimate for a Christian to Refer to a Muslim as a Brother/Sister?

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At a recent Q&A time, the above question was raised and I attempted to give a nuanced answer that demonstrated human closeness but philosophical distance. Here is a three part answer.

  1. By virtue of being created, all humans can be considered God's offspring. In a sense then we can all be called children of God. Twentieth century theological liberalism took this motif and ran with it and referred to the brotherhood of humans and the fatherhood of God. In this fashion a Christian could technically, or by dictionary definition, refer to a Muslim as a brother or sister simply as a fellow human. This way of referring to Muslims has been done frequently by Roman Catholic popes in the 1980's and 1990's with the following as an example:Pope John Paul II spoke to a largely Christian audience in Bangladesh on November 19, 1986 and he used the term "Muslim brethren." From his speech: "You must try to show your Muslim brethren and the followers of other religious traditions that your Christian faith, far from weakening your sense of pride in your homeland and your love for her, helps you to prize and respect the culture and heritage of Bangladesh." It appears he has two categories of non-Christians, namely "brethren" who are Muslims and "followers of other religious traditions." (Source: "Vatican and Papal Statements on Islam") Earlier a study group commissioned by Rome in 1977 (called the Muslim-Christian Study Group - GRIC) issued a statement to the effect:..."in the same way Muslims and Christians should recognize each other first of all as believers, 'brothers in faith in God'. In this sense, and this sense alone, we acknowledge that the expression 'inter-religious ecumenism' applies to us."
  2. From a Muslim standpoint, the sense of solidarity within its exclusive community is conveyed by the word 'ummah'. That is, it is a body of Muslim believers who assert that only Muhammad can be the final prophet and that as the Indian Muslim author Iqbal stated, "love for Muhammad runs in their veins." Thus within the 'ummah' which is an exclusive group the term "Muslim brethren" can apply.
  3. From a Christian standpoint, believers who are not only created, but have been re-created, can refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They all have been adopted into the family of God the Father and can refer to God as 'Abba Father' as their 'older brother' the Lord Jesus does. As with the particular beliefs of the Muslim 'ummah' the Body of Christ is exclusive in that single allegiance to the Trinitarian God, namely the Father and the Son and Spirit is mandatory. Jesus is considered the final revelation.

Observation:

The phrase "Muslim brethren" as used above has a potential for creating category confusion. That is because it takes the wide generic category of fellow creatures and then applies a term that has traditionally been used within the Church for those who know God as Father through Jesus Christ the Son. It blurs the vital distinction between creation and re-creation and in effect Christianizes Muslims who do not want to be Christianized due to their allegiance to Muhammad as Allah's apostle.

A better way?

The Apostle Paul approached the people of Lystra and Athens [Acts 14/17] with a posture that they were fellow humans as himself. Yet he did not Christianize their religions, but rather told them to turn from "worthless things" to the Living God. To demonstrate this fellow humanity with Muslims, would it not be more worthwhile to combine both humanly closeness and the particular distance of belonging to a completely different body of believers? In an attempt to do so, some Christian believers in some Muslim majority countries refer to Muslims as their cousins. This seems much more useful than what seems to be the theologically careless use of the term "Muslim brothers and sisters."

What are your thoughts? 

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  • Ecumenical & Interfaith
  • Muslim Ministry
  • Discussion Topic

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Participant

You did a very good job with this answer, Salaam. I'm probably still not going to refer to Muslims as my "cousins" but I don't have a better term either. Thanks for the work and care you put into writing this.

The family of the old Adam has been split asunder as a result of sin.  Through the saving work of Christ we are reborn and now live "In Christ" as the family of God.  This is the "adoption of sonship" spoken of by Paul.

I don't think "cousin" is much better as it seems to posit some genetic link which would undermine the understanding of rebirth in Christ. Family ties that bind the household of God are found in repentance, baptism and shared faith in Christ.  I would say there are no cousins as our "genetic link" is the blood of Christ.

This refusal to name them cousins should not stem from a denial of their humanity or the reality that they are image bearers of God.

Greetings Benjamin:

    Love your good theological thinking. Keep up the good work.

An F.YI. Former Muslims that I know state that the doctrine of the adoption of sons is one of the most, if not the most precious truths to them.

That is why they fought tooth and nail to discourage translation agencies with taking liberties with Father and Son in translations targeted for Muslim majority audiences.

So, the question is, what do we call those who don’t share the same religion with us, whether it be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jehovah Witness, or agnostic.  We are all human beings, so physically, intellectually and psychologically we share a common human identity.   We are all on this journey of life, some looking to this religion or that religion for guiding principles, others not following any particular religion at all, some following a religion in name alone, like the many nominal Christians. It might be nice if we could simply recognize that we all have differences, including differences of religion, and work cooperatively toward a better life for all.  But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

As Christians, we are more concerned that we don’t call someone of another religion a brother, sister, or even a cousin.  Our religion, like most other religions, is mutually exclusive.  And because we believe that our own religion (Christianity) identifies us at the deepest level of life, we look at everyone outside with suspicion or intolerance.  We don’t really consider ourselves on the same journey of life that outsiders are on.  We are too different from the others to share a common journey or a common destiny (heaven for the Christian and hell for the others).

In fact, it is this difference of religions that has been a root cause of many wars in the course of history, including the Christian Crusades.  But long before the Crusades, the God of the Jews and Christianity was demonstrating his animosity toward those of other religions.  In the Old Testament, God told his chosen people to slaughter all the people, men, women, and children, who were in possession of the promised land prior to the Jews arrival.  Hmm, kinda like ISIS, but more severe.  The Jews were acting on their faith in God, just as Muslim extremists are acting on their faith in Allah.

Of course, we Christians want to claim with the further revelation of God in Christ, our God is now a loving God.  We invite all to share in our God’s wonderful salvation and love.  But in the last decade or two we seem to have forgotten that although there is a general call or general invitation to all, there is a specific call by the Holy Spirit only to the chosen people of God.  “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  And those not chosen by God will experience God’s wrath and damnation for eternity.  God isn’t really so different from his revelation in the Old Testament.  According to the Christian faith, God chooses a specific people as the objects of his love (the Jews in the O.T. and Christians in the N.T.).  All others have or will have received from the hand of God his wrath and anger.  So it is quite understandable that we would not call an outsider to the Christian religion a brother, sister, or even a cousin.  They definitely are outsiders, non relatives.  I think Benjamin made that pretty clear in his theological evaluation.  

Of course in our present historic situation with the advent of ISIS, we want to blame the Muslim religion, especially, the extremists.  They obviously are exclusive of those outside of their religion and have the same attitude as the O.T. Jews and the God of the Bible; those outside of our religion are infidels and deserving of God’s wrath.  Those outsiders certainly are not related to our family.

The problem with the variety of religions, is that each one believes that ours is the only true religion.  Christians believe that our religion is the only true religion because it is based on God’s inspired revelation and word, therefor absolutely true.  The problem though, is that all the major religions of the world believe the same thing.  All are in possession of God’s truly inspired word and cannot be faulted.  And it’s a statement that cannot be proven false or true.  It is merely accepted as true based on faith (for each religion).  So how do we really know that all other religions are false and only ours is true?   Like other religions, our religion (Christianity) becomes true by faith, at least true to us.  Our faith makes it true. Faith is believing what cannot be seen (Hebrews 11:1) And based on the same such faith, the tenets and teachings of other religions are absolutely true to them.  But can one religion over the other be proven to be objectively true?  You tell me.  So you see, religion (even the Christian religion) has not contributed to peace and harmony in the world, in fact just the opposite.  And that makes the prospect of true peace in the world very unlikely in the future.  So like the Muslims, let’s not call them brothers or sisters, but infidels.  Isn’t that what they are to God?

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