Q. I have heard that it is wrong for a Muslim to associate or be friends with non-Muslims unless one is associating with a non-Muslim for the purpose of "missionary" work. Is there a basis for this? I have many friends who are non-Muslim, and I have no desire to convert them. My closest friends are actually very religious Christians. They have no desire to convert me. We have many intellectual discussions about religion, but there is no pressure from either side. Please let me know if there are any Qur'anic verses that discourage Muslims from associating with Christians or even atheists.

A. The Qur'an tells us to invite to the path of Allah by wisdom and good discourse. And the life of our Prophet (s) tells us something about the concept of dawa, as should Matthew 5 of the New Testament. Now the Prophet was called "al-Amin" even before the Call, which means that the people respected him even before Islam. And that is what often motivates people to convert -- one's conduct that is not carrying any overt religious message. I refer to the Bible, because in the verses referred to, Jesus exhorts against pietitiousness, which is often the behavior of those who want to convert others.

A common misconception is the mistranslation of the verse 3:27 in the Qur'an which tells us thus that we should not elect to positions of authority those who reject Islam instead of believing Muslims. I need not defend this: it should be patently logical to anyone that a "kafir" -- one who has rejected truth after it is clear to him (this is what kafir means) -- will only act against the interests of the Muslims. Yusuf Ali's translation however, leads to a very misleading understanding. (Wali -- singular of awliya -- has many meanings, but in context, it refers to a position of authority or trust wherein one's affairs are entrusted to another. For this reason, for example in the marriage ceremony, the bride's guardian is known as her "wali").

As far as missionary work is concerned, we guide by our conduct, which, if it is proper, needs no explanation. In the very negative religious atmosphere in North America, one has to be very careful that one does not go against Allah's command to invite by "wisdom." There are hadith to show that the Prophet (s) forbid people to always talk about Islam, meaning obviously, religious discourse. For when one acts properly, be s/he Jew, Christian, or Muslim, that in itself becomes the strongest form of dawa. Were we not to associate with non-Muslims, they would not have any rights in Islam, and as we know, Islam is the only faith that allows for the rights of other religious minorities.

We are allowed to marry Christians and Jews, so what are we supposed to assume then? That those Christian and Jewish wives are not friends, when Allah has told us in so many verses in the Qur'an that our wives are to be treated with love and honor. If you do not feel threatened when you go to the homes that you mentioned, and they do not impose their beliefs on you, then by all means, be a good Muslim by showing that Islam allows for social interaction. And may Allah guide us to do that which is right.

Posted September 5, 2000