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Muslims Looking Outwards: Attitudes towards Non-Muslims

Peter Riddell is Professorial Dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Melbourne School of Theology in Australia.

In the second article of this series,1 we focus upon how Muslims view outsiders, with particular reference to Westerners, especially Christians and Jews. Though the first article discussed differences within the worldwide Islamic community, this diversity is somewhat offset by the unifying effect of the sacred texts of Islam. The pages of the Qur’an, the Hadith (traditions about Muhammad’s prophetic statements and deeds), and Islam’s many legal texts make frequent reference to Christians and Jews.


With portions recited in all five daily prayers, the first chapter of the Qur’an (called Sura al-fatiha) is the most widely known segment of that scripture among Muslims worldwide. Verse seven refers to those on whom God’s wrath falls and those who have gone astray. These are usually identified by Qur’anic commentators as Jews and Christians respectively.

This sets the stage for more pointed pronouncements in the Hadith. Therein, Muhammad is reported to have said, “[H]e who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me, but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state [of disbelief], he shall be but one of the denizens of Hell-Fire.2

With such a scriptural foundation, Islamic legal texts proceed to discriminate against Christians and Jews in many ways. Al-Risala, a legal text of the Maliki law school, declares, “. . . [T]he blood-wit [financial compensation, or ‘blood money’] for [the killing of] a male Christian or Jew is half that of a male Muslim, and the blood-wit for their women is half that of their men.3

Some Muslim scholars are at pains to point out that there are Qur’anic verses which show a more friendly view of Christians. Such a verse is Q5:82: “[N]earest . . . in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, ‘We are Christians’: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.4 Nevertheless, the later references in the Qur’an are generally unfavorable towards Jews and Christians, and, together with the Hadith, they create an overall impression of negativity towards non-Muslims.

The Islamic sacred texts carry far greater weight at the Muslim grassroots than does the Bible in the lands of historical Christianity, especially in Europe. Muslim communities have not witnessed assaults on their sacred texts by liberal and agnostic ideologies, as has happened in the West since the Enlightenment. For Muslims, the Qur’an remains the unquestioned, accurate, and greatest record of Allah’s communication with humankind.


When Muslims encounter the world at large, their attitudes toward non-Muslims are significantly shaped by impressions acquired from their earlier encounters with the Islamic sacred texts in family situations, schools, and mosques, where negative stereotyping abounds. For example, one finds strong polemical statements targeting the West, Christians, and Jews in tracts produced by Islamic student societies, as well as textbooks produced by Muslim governments.5 A Muslim student tract from Sheffield, England, declares: “To propagate the Gospel, in its present form is as dangerous and irresponsible as handing out any harmful, addictive substance, for error delights its followers and the consequences are eternal. . .”6

Muslim anti-Semitism can be particularly nasty. A sermon in a Palestinian mosque in late 2002 resembled some statements emerging now from mosques in Britain: “Allah described them [Jews] in His Book, characterized by conceit, pride, arrogance, rampage, disloyalty and treachery . . . deceit and cunning . . . for which Allah transformed them to monkeys and pigs.”7

The West in general is also reviled, as in this statement from the Islamic Party of Britain: “There is nothing in Western societies . . . that remotely resembles good behavior. They all walk in haughtiness, vanity and pomp; insolent, arrogant and boastful.”8

The pervasive nature of such invective strongly suggests that it has a ready audience among Muslim constituencies, both in Muslim majority countries and among Muslim minorities in the West.


Such prevailing negativity translates into mistreatment of non-Muslim communities in diverse locations. There are consistent and well-founded reports of discrimination against and persecution of Christian minorities in majority-Muslim countries such as Egypt (E), Saudi Arabia (S), Pakistan (P), Malaysia (M), and Indonesia (I), among others. The persecution manifests itself in seven key ways:

1. Employment. Access to significant positions of influence in public service is far easier for Muslims. Typically the position of head of state is reserved for Muslims (E, S, P, M), but such preferential treatment extends to lower levels of the bureaucracy as well.

2. Education. Compulsory study of Islam is common in government schools in Muslim-majority countries, while the study of other faiths is excluded from the public curriculum (E, S, P, M).

3. The Media. Muslims enjoy preferential treatment. Religious programming on state television is reserved for Islam in many Islamic countries (E, S, P, M), with other faiths missing out completely.

4. Legislation. In many Muslim-majority countries, the government allocates significant public resources to overt Islamization (E, S, P, M), even to the creation of specific departments assigned to promote Islamic values and teachings.

5. Worship. It is typically very difficult for non-Muslims to gain authorization for church construction and repair (E, S, P, M, I).

6. Outreach. Non-Muslims are commonly forbidden to engage in mission among Muslims (E, S, P, M), whereas Muslims are free, encouraged, and enabled to seek converts from other faith groups.

7. Violence. This has been perpetrated against Christian minorities in several Muslim-majority locations (E, P, I), a fact widely reported by such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Perhaps most astoundingly, some of these phenomena are now occurring in the West as well. In some towns in northern England, such as Bradford and Burnley, churches have been vandalized and even firebombed, and Christian clergy and their wives have been threatened by young Islamists attempting to establish Muslim-only neighborhoods.9

Some liberally-minded Muslims are committed to seeking a 21st century Islamic understanding of pluralism, making space on an equal basis for non-Muslims. For example, those incidents in the north of England attracted condemnation from a number of Muslim individuals and institutions. However, as long as those Islamic texts which disparage non-Muslims are immune to critical scrutiny by Muslim scholars, the system of Islam will continue to work against Muslim liberals.

Given this situation, how should Christians respond? What difference can outsiders make to Islam? This will be the subject of the next article.10


See Part IV of this series, "Muslims Looking Inwards: Issues of Debate among Muslims."


Sahih Muslim, trans. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, n.d.), Book 1, Chapter 71, # 284. This is from the canonical Hadith collection of Abu’l-Husain Muslim bin al-Hajjaj al-Nisapuri.


Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, Al-Risala, at International Islamic University Malaysia Website, 37.04,


Qur’an, trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Beltsville, MA: Amana Corporation, 1989).


Michelle Dardashti, “Survey: Saudi Arabian Textbooks Filled with Hatred of West, Jews,” JTA Website, February 12, 2003,


From a tract prepared by the University of Sheffield Islamic Circle. Cf. P. G. Riddell, Christians and Muslims (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 150.


Sermon delivered by Dr. Mahmoud Mustafah Najem in the Sheikh Ejlin Mosque in Gaza, broadcasted on Palestinian Authority TV, November 1, 2002. See Ithmar Marcus, “Palestinian Authority Racism and Anti-Semitism,” Palestinian Media Watch, November 4, 2002, Cf. “Trouble at Leeds Grand Mosque,” MCB Watch Blog, August 21, 2005,


Islamic Party of Britain statement 1997. Cf. Riddell, Ibid., 50. Cf. also MCB Watch Blog, Ibid.


Cf. Riddell, Ibid., 73-74. See also Part VII of this series, "Is There Religious Freedom in Equal Measure in Christian and Muslim Countries?"


See Part VI of this series, "Christians Looking into Islam: Ten Ways to Respond."