Rules of dialogue

James M. Arlandson

I have been getting a somewhat steady flow of emails from Muslims critics, and sometimes they are impolite and abusive—and in some ways this is understandable. They are angry. They just read an article that critically examines their religion. Anger masks fear.

However, it is better to calm down and turn the anger into reasonable disagreements. And these disagreements should follow some basic rules, which are open to more suggestions.

They are rules of engagement. They are based on observing these reactions and disagreements in emails.

The goal is to communicate our views clearly and respectfully, but without compromising or flinching from analysis. Maybe these rules can help us reach this goal.

1. Be courteous in emails.

Too many emails I receive from Muslims use abusive language, like "intellectual moron" or "poor liar" or "wicked sinner." But emailers should know that insults will certainly not convince me to change my mind. So everyone should be courteous.

2. Limit the number of one-on-one email correspondences.

One of the reasons that I write long articles is so that I do not have to go around and around in an endless loop of long, long correspondences with a single emailer, one-on-one. I get this request all the time. Generally, I will reply to the emailer for the first time, and very likely for a second time if he is polite and has given me evidence that he has thoroughly read and understood my article. But if I sense that he is simply waging an endless "jihad by the pen or keyboard," then I politely tell him to refer to an article that I or someone else has written online, providing the link. The emailer, on the other hand, may believe that his calling is to write only emails to writers like me—and often they are long. But we are at cross-purposes. I write articles; he writes long emails. Something has to give.

3. Limit the length of the emails.

The previous rule says emails can get too long. But including a link to an article that answers questions is helpful, even if the article is written by someone who is not part of the email correspondence. However, this should be limited. I got several pages of material in a single email that demonstrated Islam’s contribution to the world in intellectual and scientific pursuits up to the Medieval Age. Regardless, so many pages of facts clipped and pasted into one email didn’t impress me.

If a Muslim critic were to send me a link to an article he has posted online, then I would gladly study it because it is personal, and I hope he extends the same courtesy to me.

4. Don’t send attachments in your emails.

There are too many viruses circulating around the web. If you want me to read some of your material, then send me the link or the URL. I’ll click on it and read it, if possible.

5. Be open to correction.

It is important to be accurate, especially in articles that critique a religion. If a reader knows that I have committed an error in fact or omitted a fact, he or she should point this out to me. I’ll be glad to correct the error. However, the reader must provide specific information and point out the specific error. He must not speak in vague generalities. One Muslim emailer said things like, "You don’t understand Islam! You got to get your facts straight!" Another one said, "Know the hadith before you write about it!"

I provided the link to the online hadith, and asked her to show me where I was wrong. She did not reply to my email. She was simply reacting angrily to a hard-hitting article.

However, even in this case, I may or may not write responses to lengthy rebuttals to my lengthy articles, if I believe we are not communicating or our efforts are fruitless.

6. Don’t over-generalize.

We must state the obvious: most Muslims and Christians and followers of other religions are law-abiding and decent persons. Only a small minority cause trouble. If anyone writes an article on Islamic terrorism, for example, it does not reflect on all Muslims.

Moreover, I have received emails from Muslims who extol the virtues of Islamic societies over western societies. For example, one said that theft in a nation like Saudi Arabia is just about down to zero because the punishment is so severe (chopping off hands). Incidents of adultery and fornication are low because the punishments are severe (whipping and stoning). But how can anyone collect the data in order to show what goes on behind closed doors? Any admission of guilt may drag the respondent into a sharia court.

Furthermore, even if there are fewer incidents of adultery and fornication and theft, maybe severe repression in those sins and crimes also produce repression in good things. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are not allowed to drive cars, and Iranian laws favor men over women. Alcohol permeates Islamic society (in the last link, scroll down to Supplemental Material).

These facts can be verified, by observing with our own eyes the laws that prohibit driving and put down women, as those three links demonstrate. It is likewise true to say that the West has gone too far in public expressions of sexuality, but we also have some benefits as well, such as women being able to drive cars and express themselves in politics.

Whatever the case, my articles that have links in them support information to back up the claims and assertions—like the three links, above. Then over-generalizing does not occur.

7. Study each other’s online articles carefully.

I got an email from a Muslim that started off with the admission that he read "just a bit" of an article I had written. But he went on to explain how wrong I was. It was clear from his tone and arguments that his admission of reading "just a bit" was accurate. He had not read the whole article, for if he had, he would not have been so far off the mark.

I got another email responding to the article "Top ten reasons why Islam is not the religion of peace." He came to reason nine, which says that the Quran commands the flogging of fornicators, and reliable hadith orders the stoning of adulterers. He explained to me that Islam has several criteria that must be met before these punishments are imposed. However, I dealt with these criteria in the article that supports the ninth point. The emailer had not read the article, for if he had, he would not have covered old ground. The same happened to my article "Top ten reasons why sharia is bad for all societies." The critic’s response was more thorough, but he did not read all of the support articles, so he argues by assertion or special pleading.

In several different emails the correspondents said they had read my article, but I could tell they had not, even though they had said something like this: "I read the article, now let me tell you something!" . . . as if they had their own agenda. They sidestepped the hard work of careful study and launched a tirade, instead.

So don’t be surprised if I ask the pushy emailer for evidence that he or she has read an article. I have this requirement in my classes. Students must write a summary of the weekly readings. I may ask the same from an aggressive emailer who demands that I keep up a correspondence with him. If he claims he has read my article, but shows no evidence for this, and then goes into his own tirade about his own agenda, then he should not expect a long reply from me.

8. Study the other religion’s source documents carefully.

One Muslim emailer misrepresented Christianity several times in his long emails. It was clear that he had not carefully studied the New Testament or even the four Gospels. This is unfair. I have read the source documents of Islam, for example, the Quran and the hadith, as thoroughly as I can. In fact, I have read the entire Quran, and I have read many of its passages many times. This is not boasting; this is a simple fact. However, I have not yet arrived. I am still in process of learning from them.

Do Muslims take the same care to read the New Testament, with proper interpretive guides, like reputable commentaries?

9. Citing a verse from the Quran to prove me wrong doesn’t work.

To me, the Quran is under investigation, so quoting it does nothing to convince me.

An emailer challenged my article critiquing Muhammad killing his critics. The emailer quoted a verse from the Quran that said believers should not put each other down. To him, this proved that Muhammad did not commit violence on critics. All Muslims got along quite well with each other.

However, this is a misguided approach to the evidence. The Quran may represent the ideal, not the real. Historical facts say that Muhammad killed critics. Second, I could quote a verse that shows Muhammad dealing out violence, so my verse and the emailer’s verse cancel each other out. Third, the verse he quoted refers to believers, not to unbelievers. Muhammad usually assassinated unbelievers, so the email took his verse out of context.

10. Challenge a religion rationally.

The heritage of the West includes the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+). It has injected the West with a heavy dose of skepticism. It sparked the scientific revolution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it also ground the Bible and Christianity under a millstone. Muslims must not be shocked if their sacred traditions go under the Enlightenment microscope.

However, it is clear (to me, at least) that in the case of Christianity both the sacred text and the religion have survived remarkably intact. This is why many Christians today who have studied the challenges from western skeptics in their own backyard are able to defend their religion; we have scholars who have gone before us and answered these questions satisfactorily (but never enough for the permanent hyper-skeptics), so we stand on their shoulders.

See the websites of Leadership University and Answering Infidels for examples of Christians answering western critics and skeptics.

Islam, on the other hand, has yet to undergo the kind of Enlightenment that challenges the Quran and Muhammad in an extended and serious way. I got an email from a Muslim who said he would never critique Moses and Jesus as critics here in the West critique Muhammad.

However, if Islam wants to be accepted here in the West, it must be subjected to the same rigorous analysis. It does not get a free pass. Muslims, of course, sometimes react with shock. In Islamic civilization, one must not critique Islam, the Quran, or Muhammad. To do this is blasphemous, and the critic may get killed.

Out of fear and shock Muslims may use labels like "Islamophobe" or "wicked sinner," but this does them no good. Rather, they should defend their views rationally. Challenging Islam or the Quran or Muhammad is not the same as condemning them.

11. Make sure the challenge is fair and chronologically correct.

Muslims challenge my articles by comparing the Medieval Crusaders with Muhammad or the Vietnam War with an early Muslim war. Or they’ll link to a page at the CIA. Their goal is to show how violent western civilization is, so who am I to complain about Islamic civilization?

But these comparisons are unfair and out of historical sequence (anachronistic). It is better to compare founder (Jesus) with founder (Muhammad) and the earliest source documents in each religion (the Quran and the hadith and the New Testament).

12. Use standard and basic rules for analyzing a sacred text.

Sometimes I read websites from Muslim critics of Christianity, and it is so clear to me that the authors and webmasters could have many of their questions answered and avoid egregious errors (the kind that sound like a violin hitting many sour notes), if they were to follow a few simple rules of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text).

Another Muslim emailer piled on Biblical verse after Biblical verse, as if this convinces me that the Bible is, for example, violent. But this is what untrained Christians do to reach an opposite conclusion, defending their faith.

Citing a multitude of verses out of context proves nothing. The goal is to communicate clearly.

At a minimum the following four steps are fair and sound for an accurate and sane understanding of a sacred text. The most basic Bible course on exegesis or hermeneutics (interpretation) at a college teaches these rules and more.

First, a reputable translation should be used. Too many times websites may use an archaic translation. They seem to do this for the purpose of discrediting the text or pushing an agenda. Readers and authors can visit one of these sites (1, 2) for the Bible and this site for the Quran (also here and here).

The second step entails describing the historical context of the text. For example, Sura 2:62 seems to say that Jews and Christians are welcome in Islamic heaven, but this sura (chapter) was revealed in around AD 622-624, early after his Hijrah or Emigration from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. This sura deals a lot with Muhammad’s relations with the Jews. At first he wanted to be accepted by them. But when they rightly rebuffed as being outside of their Biblical tradition and as being a gentile, Muhammad’s tone changes as he confronts and attacks the Jews over the next ten years until his death in 632.

A good online resource for the historical context of a sura is here, where Sayyid Maududi, a highly regarded traditional and conservative scholar, provides excellent background material.

Third, the literary or textual context should be examined. This step is not as difficult as finding the historical context because one need only read the verses around the target verse.

Sura 9 comes late in Muhammad’s ten years in Medina. In Sura 9:30-35, Muhammad accuses Jews and Christians of taking human leaders to be their lords and wanting to extinguish the light of Allah. Thus, Muhammad’s tone and language against Christianity (and Judaism) become shrill. This literary context, then, reveals a harsh outlook against Christianity, and Muhammad backs up his dark vision of the older religion with a Crusade of his own against the Byzantine Christians in AD 630 (he dies of a fever in AD 632). We are a long way from the conciliatory tone in Sura 2:62.

The second and third steps—exploring the historical and literary contexts—are important not only for clarifying the meaning of a verse, but they also prevent the standard, reflexive "out of context" defense. These two steps also challenge the Muslims (and Christians) who quote the Bible out of context.

The fourth step should interpret the verse, explaining elements within it. Commentaries and dictionaries are helpful. I often let reputable Muslim scholars speak for their sacred Book in their commentaries. Maybe Muslims would not misquote and misinterpret the Bible if they used reputable Biblical commentaries, though this article shows that maybe they won’t. So maybe I should say reasonable Muslims would not misinterpret the Bible so badly, if they used proper interpretive guides.

These four steps, which may be added to or modified, at least provide clarity over agreement. Sometimes we may never convince members on the other side, but at least we can give them the honor of understanding their views and their sacred Book in a reasonable and fair-minded way.


The purpose of these rules is to clear out a channel of communication. They are not intended to burden us. Muslim emailers should not be surprised if I link to this article in my replies to them, especially if they’re being unfair or verbally abusive or too demanding of my time with a request of an endless cycle of unproductive emails.

This article has a companion piece: "Why I write hard-hitting articles on Islam"

Articles by James Arlandson
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