An interview with Dr. Warren Larson. Dr. Larson is a faculty member of the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. Due to his understanding of radical Islam, he has been quoted widely in both Christian and secular publications. His book on religious extremism in Pakistan and its effect on Christian ministry was chosen as one of 15 most significant writings on mission in 1998. Dr. Larson is the former Director of the Zwemer Center. Canon Greg Goebel had a chance to ask Dr. Larson a few questions, questions that parishioners have asked, or that have been a part of the public conversation about muslims and the muslim experience.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for Anglican Pastor. Please tell us about yourself and your work.
Warren Larson. I grew up on a farm in Northern Canada and later attended a small Bible College close by. It was there I met and married Carol. In 1968, we left for Pakistan with Christar (formerly International Missions, Inc.). Our two sons were born in Pakistan and attended a missionary boarding school. While church planting was the main task, I also served as director of a reading room, helping Muslims understand Christianity. My wife and I started a Bible Correspondence school to help Muslims study the Bible in the secrecy of their homes, and this proved to be the most effective work we did. Finally, I was field director of Christar for about a decade. After 23 years, I was falsely accused of spying on the nuclear facilities of the country, and after a long and hard struggle to refute the charges, was forced out in 1991.
After doing a PhD in Islamic studies, in 1996 we moved to South Carolina, and I set up a graduate program for the study of Islam at Columbia International University, teaching in the area of Muslim studies. During my time there, I directed the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies for several years. My wife and I now live in Vancouver (Canada), close to our children and grandchildren. I continue to teach online courses to equip workers among Muslims, edit the Zwemer Center website, but also do some writing and speaking on Islam.
Can you help us understand the diversity of experience in what it means to be a Muslim today?
Warren Larson. An entire book could be written about this (and several have!), because there are so many Muslims, and over the last 1500 years, they have changed/adapted to local contexts. With 1.6 billion adherents, stretching all the way from Morocco to Malaysia, the diversity is significant. There are more than 50 countries of the world with a majority of Muslims, plus quite a few with a minority of Muslims.
The Islam you find in parts of the Middle East is much more rigid than in Indonesia where people are more easy going. For example, one of the assignments for students in my Introduction to Islam class this semester, asks them to interview a Muslim, or visit a mosque. One student, living in Switzerland, interviewed an Indonesian woman on Skype and she told how she had become a Muslim and how she and her husband tried to practice the faith. Wearing jeans and a tee shirt, she seemed to ridicule other women who felt they had to follow a strict dress code. (By the way, when you look at the Qur’an, the only thing it says is to dress modestly, but it doesn’t require that a woman wear the hijab or head covering, let alone the burqa, a full body covering). Although she and her husband try to say their prayers, they don’t attend the mosque. She said they avoided pork but didn’t seem to want to condemn those who do. Finally, she commented that the Qur’an is more important than the Hadith (Traditions of Muhammad).
Such things as food and dress, of course, have most to do with culture, but the theological difference is that some Muslims live and die by the Hadith (what Muhammad the prophet said and did). Fundamentalist Muslims (if we can use the term without being pejorative) hold the Qur’an in one hand and the Hadith in the other.
One other example showing the diversity is Pakistan where there are Muslims known as the Deoband sect who are much more strict, unbending, and I suppose you can say extreme (though not all). The opposing sect is called Brelvi, who are more into Sufi practices; they visit shrines, follow the saints and are quite mystical. These two groups hate one another. The Deoband in Pakistan (and India) are somewhat like the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia, and if you have been following the story of Ms. Malik, the young woman, who along with her husband, murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, was Deoband. Interestingly enough, her father had turned from Brelvi to Deoband, and had taken the family to Saudi Arabia (for employment). Possibly, Ms. Malik was radicalized there, yet now the family is very much ashamed of what she did.
We could carry this point (differences among Muslims) too far, but several years ago, I interviewed a Muslim woman in Christianity Today, whose name is Dalia Mogahed, author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? She points out the great variety among Muslims in her book. Late this past year, in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, she was on PBS, talking about how the growing hatred of Muslims–some (like Donald Trump and Franklin Graham) wanting to ban them from immigrating–is not the American way.
All that to say, I sometimes tell my students it is harder to nail down an “essential” Islam, but easier to speak of “islams” because there is such variety. And when we talk to Muslims it is good to let them tell us what they believe and practice, rather than us defining Islam for them. It’s a good rule of thumb in witnessing!
We sometimes hear the claim that Muslim leaders don’t denounce terror. Yet many do but aren’t heard, and others are perhaps threatened into silence. What is your experience in terms of the attitude of most Muslims toward extremism and violent terrorism?
Warren Larson. Muslims by the score are denouncing terror and many are speaking against ISIS. Some are coming right out and saying ISIS is a problem of Islam and Muslims must own it. Others (like CAIR in the US) insist that ISIS doesn’t have anything to do with Islam. Recently, the American President said ISIS is a “perversion” of Islam, and certain conservatives were quick to criticize him for not calling a spade a spade.
In the end, I’m not sure who will win the argument, because it is true that ISIS and other violent groups regularly cite religious texts for the barbaric stuff they carry out. My own view is that ISIS is one face of Islam, but not the only face. Islam has many faces and we have to be a bit cautious and humble in coming up with definitive answers as to the essence of Islam.
What we do know, and as suggested above, Islam is very divided and it seems becoming more divided by the day. Muslims are torn apart, but this is working for the spread of the Gospel. The Zwemer Center recently published an article by Dr. Matthew Stone called “Are Liberals and Conservatives asking the Wrong Question about Islam and Isis?” One side of the usual argument, says, ISIS is the real Islam and the other side says, no, it’s not at all Islam. The article says that a better question might be “Which Islam do you want?”
Unfortunately, many of us didn’t pay much attention to the Islamic world and faith until the rise of terrorism threatened our personal sense of safety and security. How can we change that perspective so that we can see the wider experience of Muslim people in our communities?
Warren Larson. Probably through study and reading but mostly by befriending a Muslim. We have to be selective in our source of information. Christians seem to be getting most of their information from sources that either hate Muslims, or who have absolutely no desire to win them to Christ. Some of my students have had their views change drastically after visiting a mosque, meeting a Muslim or two, and becoming friends. Some are taking classes, even after being on the field for a while, and they are a great asset in class, sharing experiences of Muslim hospitality, but also their experiences of trying to answer certain obstacles Muslims face in reference to the Gospel.
Some of those obstacles are theological. One student told of sitting on a plane with a Muslim, and in the course of the conversation, heard the main objections, such as “Jesus cannot be the Son of God,” “the Bible has been changed,” and “the Qur’an is the final revelation from God.” In the class, students focused on one objection, and how they could deal with it. Others then offered feedback, and in the end, they felt better prepared to handle misunderstandings. A major misunderstanding is that when we say Jesus is the Son of God, Muslims immediately think God had a wife and so produced a son, so we must be able to answer that with sound reasoning and appropriate Scripture.
Can Muslim people’s integrate fully into Western, democratic societies peacefully, or is there too much tension between Christian based legal systems and Muslim systems?
Warren Larson. I think they can, but we have no guarantees Islam won’t continue to grow and take over certain areas of the West. All we can do is keep preaching the Good News and remaining faithful to what we know is the truth. God is saving some, but the way certain Christians are acting today, it looks like they have no real understanding that God wants to save Muslims. All they want to do is for Muslims to leave us alone, allow us do our thing, and let the Muslims go to hell. Frankly, some of talk about Shariah and Islamic Law is fear-mongering.
How can we be a Christian witness to Muslim peoples in our communities, and yet affirm their freedom and live in peace with them?
Warren Larson. You may have heard the experience some of us had several years ago in South Carolina. Apparently, a fellow in Middle Eastern dress, walked into a church service one morning, sat on the back bench, and took notes throughout the message. At the end, he went forward and began to argue certain points, but the pastor had no idea how to respond. And, what worried the pastor most, was that the Muslim kept one hand in his pocket and it was assumed he had a gun. Afterwards, elders and deacons gathered around, wondering what to do, and one deacon suggested they start packing guns to protect themselves. However, the pastor thought there might be a better way, so consulted the Zwemer Center and arranged a meeting of about twenty pastors in this denomination. Since I was the director at the time, I spoke, Trevor Castor spoke a bit, and a couple of students went along.
One student was a female convert from Central Asia who testified how she had come to faith, won several members of her family and gone on to Christian service, CIU and beyond. (Today, with her husband, she is a missionary among Muslims). In the end, you could see the struggle they had between faith and fear, and it seemed fear won out. We had encouraged them not to be afraid, but to reach out to Muslims through prayer and witness, but they couldn’t seem to bridge the gap. Their response is all too common among evangelical Christians.
What are the best ways for us to get to know Muslim peoples in our communities? How can we show the love of Christ?
Warren Larson. I think often it’s just treating Muslims as friends and reaching out to the them with love and kindness. It may be by bringing a plate of cookies to Muslim families who move into our neighborhoods.
It could include passing out Jesus DVDs, plus a few other gift items at Christmas time. Recently, I picked up 300 Jesus DVDs of what is called the MEL (Middle Eastern Languages) version that is in 16 Muslim languages (Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, et cetera) with English subtitles. (They have been subsidized and are available in Vancouver for ten cents each when distributed to Muslims). When speaking, I will have those videos available, encouraging folks to give them to Muslim neighbors. Of course, not all will accept them, but many will, since they respect Jesus (about 100 references to him in the Qur’an–healing the sick, curing the lepers, raising the dead). We can do this with a smile, even if they hesitate to accept the video.
Another thing we can do is give out a book like Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by Iqbal Qureshi, a Pakistani who came to faith, or Captive in Iran, a story about two female Iranian converts in Iran. These two young believing women gave out hundreds and hundreds of New Testaments in Tehran, but were finally arrested and thrown into the infamous Evan prison, where twice they were sentenced to be executed. But they were finally released and now live in Atlanta. They have a wonderful testimony.
I think what we need to remember is that Satan has bound many Muslims, and taken them “captive at his own will” (2 Timothy 2:26). Our primary task is not to beat up on Islam, show Muslims how terrible Islam is, how wrong the Qur’an is, and how evil Muhammad was. People need to be delivered/rescued from the maiming, brokenness and bruising they have experienced at the hands of the evil one. We need to be filled with compassion–not rage. Realizing this, we pray for them, struggle with them and trust they come to faith. We might even offer to pray for them, because that usually means a lot to Muslims.
Finally, we must recognize what God is doing today. ISIS and other groups are shaking the Muslim world to the core. Current students and former students often relate stories of Muslims turning to Christ, so we have to lay hold of this truth that God is doing a great work, even in the midst of pain and suffering.
I’m thankful for the time I spent working with you during my seminary years. I have always appreciated your personal and academic knowledge of the Muslim experience, alongside a humane and Christian approach to both evangelism and peaceful coexistence.
Warren Larson. May God use all for his glory!
Other Resources from Dr. Larson:
- Islam: Inherently Violent or Peaceful? Christianity Today
- Waging Peace on Islam Christianity Today
- My Top Five Books on Islam Christianity Today
Featured Image: Public Domain. Photo of Dr. Larson courtesy Zwemer Center, used by permission.