Finding common ground with Islam

If you were to enter into inter-religious dialogue with a Muslim, where would you begin to build bridges? Obviously we have our differences, not least over who Jesus was and is, but we are not without some similarities are we? So, beyond the media stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and Christians as self-appointed judges, juries and executioners I would like to explore what common ground we might potentially have. So, if you’re Christian, what do you find admirable about Islam?

13 thoughts on “Finding common ground with Islam

  1. Great thought, Matt!
    I find the Muslim sense of the Sacred to be absolutely amazing. I think we could learn much from muslims there.
    When I was in [insert muslim country name here], one thing I noticed was that the muslims showed more respect for my Bible (and indeed the words written therein) than often I did myself. They would ensure that I placed nothing on top of the Bible; on entry we were cautioned to have a completely unmarked Bible, for a muslim would never (for example) underline verses in the Koran.
    They automatically voiced the traditional benediction “Peace be upon him” whether I was talking about Isa (seen by muslims as a prophet) or the Apostle Paul (who is not).
    Perhaps much of this is tradition, but even if only small amounts of it actually matters in their minds (and in ours!) it is to be admired.

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  2. I find the emphasis and committment to prayer demanded by Islam to be deeply challenging, it provides a rythm and structure to life that many Christians would reject, but is sinterestingly being sort out especially by the new monastic movements.

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  3. I agree with you on the prayer commitment, that’s something that comes to mind for me too. But to speak from the heart, what resonates with me most strongly is the poetry of Rumi. I know that’s not a bridge that every Muslim would relate to, but it is a bridge from Islam to me.

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  4. A definite strength with the Afghani Muslims I know at the gym is their willingness to help out with spotting me when pushing weights, their sense of community with other Muslims, and their general friendliness. I think hospitality is also another strength.
    Within my work one of my collegeaues – a Lebanese man -enjoyed engaging me in mutually respectful dialogue to do with faith and social justice issues.He was open to hear what I had to say and I enjoyed hearing from him. I liked his passion for even handed social justice for all.
    Try this for size: I recently read an essay “Just religion: why should we de-colonize God’s name” by Samir Selmanovic, raised in Muslim family who served as a Christian pastor and community organiser in Manhattan during 9/11 and its aftermath. His book “It’s really about God:Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian will be published in 2009. He is a member of the Interfaith Relations Commision of the National Council of Churches and is the founder of Faith House Manhattan, a congregation led by a priest, a rabbi, and an iman (www.samirselmanovic.com )(quote from description in “The Justice Project” ed Brian Mclaren, Elisa Padilla & Ashley Bunting Seeber (2009).
    Selmanovic argues that we must consider “the possibility that God is fully, alive, and well among people of other religions, or even no religion at all…[we need to] see the true humaness of the other. It is no different in religion…[we need to] expect God in the other: in their community, their practices, and their texts, just as I want the other to expect God in our community, our practices, and our texts…God does not create to abandon. “Are not you Israewlites the same to me as the Cushites” declares the Lord (Amos 9:7)…God is with the other, in the other, and for the other…Our theology is at stake here. If there is no God on the outside, the inside collapses…That is my definition of just Christianity: not only to concede but to celebrate the presence of God in the other…We are in this together. All humans, no matter their religion, are God’s beloeved and are called to be God’s agents on earth…[We need to] explore God’s presence among the other”.
    Selmanovic says one thing which I think is especially quite profound on the general topic of “just religion”: “We insist that while all religion excludes people, the gospel is different from all religion, and is thus an antidote to exclusion: We are accepted by God, not because we are better than anyone else, but because of Jesus, who was excluded for us on the cross”. He was excluded that we could be included, and that applies to every human being.
    I think he provides us with some very good reasons for intiating respectful and non-judgmental dialogue with people who represent “the other”, including people of other faiths.
    Maybe God will speak to us through them? Maybe God will be encountered there? And maybe visa versa.

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  5. Matthew. This is a big simplification, but still essentially true.
    One of the inherent problems with Islam altogether is that it essentially refuses to be assimilated by other cultures. Islam being the one true religion (and the “final revelation”) because the Koran says so.
    Christianity by comparison does allow a large degree of assimilation but only up to a certain point. Christianity being the one true faith because the Bible says so. As does the catholic church via its pretentious entirely worldly magisterium. The Pope was at it again yesterday via his attempted interference in UK politics.
    Hinduism and Buddhism by comparison are easily assimilated into other cultures because neither of these very fluid faith traditions has a single centralized ecclesiastical “authority”, or Sacred Text. Each has many revered Sacred Texts none of which is considered to be the only source of written truth.
    Plus Buddhism and Hinduism both have many highly revered saints, mystics, yogis and sages who were/are all understood to have Realized something extraordinary (even Divine) about the nature of existence altogether.

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  6. Andrew, I must confess I’m a little uneasy with interfaith churches as they’re called. I mean, I readily affirm that we can expect to see God in the other, and I happily affirm we can catch glipses of God in the teachings of other religions (even in Satanism believe it or not), but at the end of the day I find the “Jesus is Lord” affirmation binds me to affirming these revelations as lesser than the revelation of God in Jesus. That places limits on how deep I can engage in interfaith worship ceremonies.

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  7. John, maybe we’re understanding the word “assimilation” a bit differently, but observations of Hinduism are completely counter to this. Hinduism and Indian culture are so deeply interwoven that its very difficult to separate the two. I never seen Hinduism translated cross culturally to the degree I’ve seen Christianity translated cross culturally. Maybe you’ve got some examples? For instance, has Hinduism ever been translated successfully into African culture and language, such that a distinct stream of African Hinduism has emerged?

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  8. Hi Matt, I am mindful of issues such as syncretism etc.
    So I’m a little uneasy about interfaith churches myself.
    Just thought I’d raise it as a matter of interest.
    Selmanovic does raise some interesting points which I feel are important to consider.
    Like yourself, the “Jesus is the Son of God and the true Messiah, the Risen Lord” is very important as affirmation of our Christian faith.
    I just think that despite being part of a faith which claims to be inclusive, when in theological-defensive mode the Church often opts for the hardline exclusive position. To cite an Old Testament lecturer of mine (Bill Leng) in the 1970’s: “Being the one and only true faith, God is utterly intolerant of all other faiths” – said in the context of Israel’s waging of Herem, or Holy War in the OT. Leng was no necessarily advocating holy war, but providing an explanation for it as interpreted by Israel. Interfaith dialogue to make diplomatic efforts toward peace was unthinkable.
    How things have changed now!

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  9. In response to Johno, I’ve attended Church with Middle Eastern Christians (most converts from Islam) where a high priority was placed on honoring the Bible. (they didn’t write in it, it never touched the floor, ect.) And while I might be inclined to respect this and feel convicted over my treatment of my Bible (it was usually right under my bed my freshmen year, so I did step on it nearly every morning >.<) I can't help but feel that this is a displaced honor. While I believe the words/message of the Bible are important, I don't feel that the book itself is worthy of this level of respect. Although I tend to see the whole situation as one of eating/not eating meat offered to idols. While I believe that the Bible is no more worthy of honor than a rosary or a church building, I do respect the conscience of these Christians who feel they are doing the right thing and, in their presence, am more conscious of how I treat my own Bible. (And try not to open just the front cover where my younger sister once decided to bust out the markers and scribble. I'm sure that more than one old lady would have a heart attack if they saw it!)
    I do love the Muslims dedication to prayer (and I believe the call to prayer is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. :D) but I do have concerns that, at times, these prayers become the same empty rituals that Jesus speaks against. I do like the structure it provides, but feel that it could too easily become something one does simply because the Koran says you should.
    And this may come from my Lutheran background, where tradition (prayer, fasting, ect.) is considered important, but not required. Therefore, I naturally shy away from any tradition that requires a specific time/place to pray and then further requires a specific prayer to be said.
    :/ Hmmm. I feel like I've kind of defeated the purpose of this question with my "here is what I like… but here is what I don't like" answer. I'm sorr about that!

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  10. I was on a course a couple or years ago and the lecturer speaking on One world many faiths said that you know who we normally equate the Bible with the Koran well it is not necessarily accurate because Jesus Christ is the revelation of God not the Bible so that would mean that Jesus would be parallell to the Koran and Mohammed would be on a par with Mary, Jesus’ mother. One of the other issues that was covered was abrogation which meant that some parts of the sacred writings would be less emphasised, forgotten, in favour of others. All major faiths have in some way abrogated parts of their sacred writings. So I would like to conclude this paragraph just by saying that the Bible does not necessarily equate to the word of God, but rather the Word of God is inherent in it.
    Francis engaged Christendom’s enemy, Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil, by approaching him unarmed in the midst of the Fifth Crusade in 1219. The Crusaders had laid siege to Damietta, a city at the mouth of the Nile where 80,000 people were dying of disease and starvation.
    The Christian forces were hoping to conquer Egypt, which would not only make it easier to take and hold Jerusalem but would deal a heavy blow against all Islam.
    Francis actually believed what Jesus said in the New Testament about loving his enemy and took a much different approach than his fellow Christians.
    His goal was to convert Sultan al-Kamil to Christianity through peaceful persuasion. He didn’t succeed in that, but, amazingly, the two men found common ground and appear to have genuinely appreciated each other.
    The sultan, who no doubt viewed Francis in light of an ancient Muslim tradition of reverence for holy Christian monks, permitted him to stay in his camp for several days, preaching the enemy’s faith in the midst of the Crusade.
    Francis was so influenced by the unexpectedly tranquil encounter with the sultan that when he returned home, he attempted to revise his order’s code of conduct to urge that his friars live peacefully among Muslims and “be subject” to them as a way of giving Christian witness — a revolutionary approach, considering that the Crusade was still being fought
    There is only one way to fully engage with all people and that is incarnationally. Being the Gospel, you are the message 🙂
    It also depends on what you are trying to do, if you are trying to convert people like Francis tried to do good chance it won’t work, you need to look at this in the same light as reaching young people as a process not to be dependent on the product because as they say God is as much a God of the journey as He is God of the arrival.

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  11. Andrew, hmmm, scary quote. I’m always wary of people who ground their “theology of other religions” in the Old Testament rather than the New Testament, without any recognition of how the crucifixion changes things. Who is Lord, Jesus or Moses?
    For my own part, I am guided by the words of the apostle Peter: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”
    In these words I find a sense of inclusive exclusiveness or exclusive inclusiveness. Jesus is affirmed as messiah, exclusively; but with a sense of invitation, not violence or coercion.
    Looking back on the wars of ancient Israel, I think some context is required anyway. They were primary waged within the boarders of the Promised Land. They were not waged against other lands. This makes it difficult to translate them into a generalized theology of other religions. For a counterpoint I think we need to read Jonah.

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  12. Emily, so wary of Bibliolatry in other words? Fair call. As you say though, Muslim respect for the Koran can pull us up short when we’ve gone too far the other way. I think this is how I’d approach the appreciation question, it’s not to say you agree with everything Muslims do or say, it’s just to say maybe we can learn something from them even so.

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  13. Dissident Disciple, that is my understanding too. Jesus is the Torah. The scripture are a word about The Word. Very different to Islam.
    As for St Francis, it all depends on what we mean by ‘conversion’ and ‘effectiveness’ doesn’t it? Coerced conversion may superficially seem more effective, but is such a conversion authentic? If we conclude, no, it’s not authentic, then how effective was the strategy? Well, it wasn’t effective at all! On the contrary, it can actually inoculate people against authentic conversion, which is very counter-productive indeed.

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