Category Archives: Theology of Interfaith

An Evangelical Christian Responds to Muslims

Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute
Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute

I was privileged recently to participate in a conference entitled “Islamophobia and Religious Freedom” at Temple University in Philadelphia.  The conference was sponsored, in part, by the organizations headed men whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few years – Dr. Douglas Johnston of The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and Dr. Rick Love of Peace Catalysts International.

The primary purpose of the conference was to address the perpetual rift between Evangelical Christians and Muslims in the United States – two groups that seem to always be at intractable odds.  There were a number of excellent presentations by experts in various aspects of religion and religious freedom from both the Christian and Muslim faith traditions.  Some presentations covered sensitive topics of concern to the Christian and Muslim communities respectively; however, these topics were discussed in a much-needed spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.

No participant at this conference was under the illusion that the fault lines between the evangelical Christian and Muslim communities are imagined.   This conference was not designed to have Christian and Muslim leaders come together, sing “Kumbaya”, and sweep the issues under the rug.  The purpose was just the opposite.

I had the pleasure of moderating an enlightening discussion concerning barriers to peaceful relations with Muslims, real and perceived, among Evangelical Christians.  The presentations focused on concerns about Islamic extremism in America, the persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries, and the perceived failure of moderate Muslims to counter the extremist Islamic message.  These are serious topics and valid concerns among Evangelical Christians.  I would like to share my insights on each of these topics in the context of the presentations at this conference.

While media coverage implies that Islamic extremism is increasing and spreading in the Middle East, the facts do not support the notion of a rise in Islamic radicalism here in the United States.  According to Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been over 190,000 murders in the United States.  Of those, 37 were committed by Muslim-American terrorists –  a miniscule percentage that certainly belies the notion of Islamic extremism infiltrating American society.

Many within Evangelical Christianity have asked “why do Muslims hate Christians so?” in response to the media reports of persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries.  However, I can assure you that many Muslims ask the same question of Christians when they hear the vile general accusations toward Islam that are hurled by some prominent evangelical Christians.  Unfortunately, we heard stories of young Muslim children right here in the United States that have been beaten and ridiculed for their faith by other “normal” children.

The third topic in my panel discussion asked the question, “Where are the moderate Muslims?”  The fact of the matter is they are there and are vocal; however, as we all know, especially during the current election cycle, those that stand for peace are not as attractive to the media as those who advocate controversy.  As Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post has said, “If it bleeds, it leads”.  Do we, as Evangelical Christians, feel the need to publicly condemn the Westboro Baptist Church each time they spew hate in the name of Christianity?  Or the hundreds of murders that occur across the United States every month committed by misguided individuals that happen to be from a Christian background?  We do not automatically make the connection between violent acts and a person’s religion in any context other than Islam.

Again, I do not pretend to believe that there are not issues between the two faiths that must be addressed head-on; however, I am dismayed at the seeming prejudice displayed by some in both faith traditions that imply that the two faiths are somehow incompatible and incapable of peace.  Honestly, I am not sure what lies behind that feeling among some – I am sure it is exceedingly complex.  I can only speak to the misunderstandings and enmity that originate within my faith tradition – Evangelical Christianity.

The challenge for Evangelicals in addressing these issues is that we tend to revert to our basest human natures which are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ.  We do this out of a real or perceived fear.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, whether they be black, white, Jewish, Islamic, or just like us.  What “loving someone” means has a number of different interpretations for different people; however, loving someone as ourselves leaves no doubt as to what we are commanded to do.  In doing anything other than this, we, as Christians, risk losing our Christian identity and betraying the Christian values that we claim to espouse.

Interfaith spirituality: Listen to God, hear the other

As a devout Muslim woman who is founded in Islamic education, I feel pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a spiritual experience just by listening to non-Muslim faith experiences. Often, interfaith participants say that one of the benefits of interfaith dialog is a strengthening of one’s own faith. This is true for me; not only my own faith increases when I am speaking about Islam but when I hear other people describe their own spiritual experiences as well.

Last week I surge in spirituality during an event that I attended for the second year. The Multicultural Alliance’s annual Interfaith Retreat for Seminarians is a program prepared by MCA Texas to gather seminarian students and faculty from the three faith traditions, Judaism/Christianity/Islam, for four days of dialog, learning, and compassion. This year’s theme was “Tell Me a Story” where students and faculty from eleven seminaries in Texas, California, Connecticut and Maryland listened to presentations from resource scholars who shared about what telling stories meant in each of the three faith traditions.

After each presentation the group of seminarians dispersed in pre-assigned smaller groups of five to six where they spent time discussing their reflections on the topic. Through these meetings, several people expressed deep personal experiences of faith that evoked echoes of awe throughout the room. Personally, I felt visions of God and His blessings upon His creation as I listened to each story and reinforced my own faith and hope in a better future. As a Christian woman described how her daughter one day surprised her by speaking eloquently about issues of faith, I thought about my own daughter who currently does not show any interest in religious devotion and wondered: “Could she one day grow up from the seed I had planted and surprise me by an indulgence into leaps of faith?” I also listened to a another woman’s story with her husband who was not rooted in faith, yet he was the main spiritual support system in her career as a chaplain and seminarian. She and I had lengthy discussions about how our husbands have been the major tools that God used in order to facilitate our religious missions by making them generate energy, power, and aspiration into our spirits.

Some insightful talks inspired me as a guide of how I may react if put in a similar situation in the future, of how to deal with calamity and life’s trials, or of how to deal with any kind of loss. The young Rabbi’s story of how he was hit by a truck four months before his wedding and how he meanwhile spent his time with pain and temporary disability while tending to an herb indoor garden was mesmerizing. Each one of us has at some point faced hardship and struggled with putting things on hold until one was able to get oneself together. The Rabbi’s experience is a reminder that sometimes you cannot wait for the storm to pass but you need to learn how to dance in the rain. Pain and loss are parts of life but life doesn’t stop at their doorsteps. A Christian woman who lost her husband recently was another example of how life must go on because the Giver of this life is alive. She is attending her first seminary semester and looks forward in a pastoral future despite her severe personal loss. These are examples that I personally value when I wake up every morning from now on, whether the morning is shiny or gloomy.

I shared personal stories and experiences of hope, love and peace that I felt God bestowed upon me during my journey in religious studies. I was surprised that my stories touched the hearts of the Jewish and Christian participants who found them inspiring. I received a lot of confirmation and thumbs up, encouraging me to keep going forward. All this came from people who were total strangers but who in four days became very close. So close that I realized that what they gave me could not have been given by many people who exist in my personal life and shared my Muslim faith. They gave me the spiritual and intellectual support that only people who study religion know about. Living in a secular world with a strong faith is not always easy. People don’t understand why I am keeping up with religious dietary restrictions or prayer or practices. Friends wonder why I seem so distant and unwilling to sacrifice my study time to keep a high profiled social lifestyle. Some family members complain that I don’t spend enough time with them or that I don’t give them enough attention…

Interfaith dialogs are like a savings account: the more you put in them the more you will end up with. And if you sincerely bring God to these conversations you will discover God in new ways. Very few people realize this theology of interfaith but for those of us who know it we can’t live without it. It is our support system. This seminarian retreat has become my spiritual treat and refuge thanks to my Jewish, Christian and Muslim interlocutors who gift me with finding God by listening to their stories.

Celebrating Amidst The “War on Christmas”

On this Christmas Eve, as I listen to Christmas carols on the radio and read the Christmas Story from Luke to my children, I think about those of other faith traditions, like Dina, who are considered to be faith minorities in the United States.  How do they receive the theology behind Christmas?  Does the religious “Other” feel threatened by the celebration of Christmas in American society?

Dina’s post very eloquently describes her experiences being Muslim during the Christmas holiday.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to see interfaith relations improve in the United States, her comments bring a measure of relief centered on the realization that there do exist avenues toward common religious understanding.  However, I would like to address a negative factor that inevitably is revisited during this time of the year among some American Christians – the idea that Christmas is under attack – the “War on Christmas“.

There is, no doubt, an increasing secularism in the United States that lead some to believe that nefarious efforts are afoot to erase the influence of Christians in the public sphere.  Our society’s secular nature was established by our Founding Fathers with the intent of establishing a government that is not beholden to one particular religion for fear of oppressing others, as had been their experience in Europe. The increasing diversification of the American societal landscape since the nation’s founding has made secularization even more necessary in order to ensure a “level playing field” without favor toward one faith over another. There is no real evidence to suggest that a non-Christian faith group is attempting to willfully eliminate Christian influence in the public square; rather, the so-called “War on Christmas” is simply a fairly benign byproduct of the principles of the separation of church and state that this country was founded upon.

Do I believe that American society would be in a better place if Christian principles were allowed to shape public policy? Absolutely! But I also believe that our society would be better off if Muslim or Jewish morality were exclusively practiced rather than succumbing to the absence of public morality. Unfortunately, the nature of man has proven to lead to the abuse of power in order to promote a certain agenda and, when the agenda has been religious in nature, this abuse has proven to have had catastrophic results in the past. Those that promote religion on the public arena quite often end up casting a negative light on their religion rather than achieving any kind of moral purpose. James Madison, the Father of the United States Constitution, said,

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

Our nation’s diverse society requires a great modicum of respect by faith groups toward each other. Personally, I have never felt physically threatened in exercising my faith in this country and have not met many other Christians who do. A preoccupation with a mythical “War on Christmas” only serves to create a siege mentality among those Christians who believe in it. Christians cannot reflect the teachings of Christ while circling the wagons to fend off attacks and we cannot demonstrate Christ’s most important teaching, forgiveness, while constantly in defense mode.

The meaning of the Christmas season, to Christians, is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should remember, however, that not all of our fellow citizens take the same meaning from the holiday. When it comes to the relationship between Christians and Muslims, particularly during the Christmas season, we Christians would be better served in remembering that Jesus is a central and revered figure in Islam as well as Christianity. As Dina expressed in her post, a Muslim following true Islam will join a Christian in honoring Jesus during this season. So, as Christians, we should put away the armor and sword during this season and reach out to our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition with a focus on the teachings of Jesus as a bridge over the divide.

I do not celebrate Christmas – but I do celebrate Jesus

One of the hardest things for a Muslim parent in America is to raise children who don’t believe in Christmas. I say specifically “a Muslim parent” because once I reached beyond the childhood stage of my kids it no longer mattered whether we celebrated Christmas or not. But when my kids were in elementary school, it used to behoove me to preach to them the theology of Jesus the way Muslims believe it while their classmates bragged about their Christmas wish lists, presents, trees, and santas!

Muslim Americans are not the only non-Christian group feeling challenged by the theology of Christmas. Many intellectuals call this theology as part of the Christian privilege that Christian Americans enjoy in this land that also enjoys a diverse religious landscape. From Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, to Hindus, Buddhists, to atheists and agnostics, many Americans complain about how they have to go through Christmas every year, including receiving Christmas wishes, without feeling alienated.

However, I don’t feel alienated in America. That’s because I believe in religious pluralism that preaches respect of all faith traditions and their followers. I actually enjoy the holiday season with its decorations, lights, festivities, and joyful atmosphere (including shopping  deals)! Once I taught my children that Christmas was not part of our Muslim theology we became at ease enjoying the cultural aspect of the season. Moreover, Muslims don’t feel “left behind” simply because they don’t celebrate Christmas, for we do celebrate someone who is greater than this holiday: We celebrate Jesus.

Jesus, peace be upon him and his mother Mary, is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The virgin Mary has a whole chapter in the Qur’an dedicated to her name. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus is the word of God, the spirit of God, and the messenger of God. He was miraculously born without a father, he miraculously spoke to people while in his cradle, and he performed several miracles like healing and giving life to the dead through the will and permission of God. Like all the biblical prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, each Muslim is obligated to believe in Jesus as truth. Without the belief in Jesus Christ a Muslim’s belief is incomplete according to the Qur’an.

The mission of Jesus, the son of Mary, according to the Qur’an, was to bring ease to the children of Israel (the Jews) by reducing some of the commandments that were difficult for them while affirming the truth in the Torah. The Qur’an then narrates that at some point, Jesus felt betrayal from his brethren, so he asked around, “who are my helpers in the way of God?” A group called Hawariyyoun (the Helpers of Jesus) replied that they were his helpers and declared submission to the will of God. Then the Qur’an continues with God talking to Jesus and telling him that He would be caused to die and be exalted unto God. (Qur’an, 3:55) (For the beginning of the story of Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus refer to 3:35 onward).

Even though Muslims believe in Jesus and celebrate him they faced disagreement with Christians. Issues like the trinity, Jesus’ crucifixion which Muslims don’t believe in, and theological matters about the nature of Jesus put the two faith traditions in discord. However, the Qur’an forewarned about this discord and advised Muslims about the way they should do “interfaith” with their Christian brethren. “Interfaith” is interaction between different faith groups, a phenomenon that was born in the twentieth century. Yet, the Qur’an fourteen hundred years ago instructed its followers on the way to interact with Christians:

“Say ‘O, followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God. ‘ And if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.'” (Qur’an 3: 64).

The Qur’an doesn’t tell Muslims to kill, mock, or wage wars against Christians because of their theological differences. Those who misunderstand it are betraying God.