Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Finding Common Ground in a Big Fish

Image: Tim Peacock

Twenty miles south of Beirut is a sandy beach called Jiyeh. It’s a rare interlude in Lebanon’s rocky coastline, and if you were out in the Mediterranean, crying for deliverance as currents swirled about you, waves and breakers sweeping over you, this is where you’d want God to command a fish to vomit you onto dry land.

And this is, in fact, the spot where ancient legend says that the Hebrew prophet Jonah was delivered safely to shore.

Jonah has long been honored here. Mosaics found in the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church show the prophet who tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh getting turned around by a large fish. And today there is a Muslim mosque on the site with a shrine to Jonah.

The Hebrew story of the reluctant prophet is beloved not only by Christians but also by those who hold the Qur’an to be the final revelation of God. And chiseled on the shrine is the verse that he prayed from the belly of the fish, which Muhammad urged Muslims to recite when in trouble.

“The most common prayer of Muslims during times of crisis is the prayer of Jonah,” Emad Botros, professor of Old Testament at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, told CT. “We share a heritage with Muslims. And what is better to share than stories?”

Botros is one of a few scholars turning to Jonah as a site of common interest connecting Christians and Muslims. He has written a book, Jonah: Bible Commentaries from Muslim Contexts, the second volume in a series on reading the Bible in the context of Islam. He thinks the story of the prophet—along with other shared stories—can help start a conversation across the faiths.

“The prophets of old were the heroes of Muhammad,” Botros said. “Knowing his reflections helps us communicate our biblical stories more effectively.” The Qur’an’s account of Jonah—which Muslims believe was divinely revealed through the archangel Gabriel—is different from the version in the Hebrew Bible. In the Muslim version, the city he’s going to is…

This article was originally published in the December print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.


Wisdom and Foolishness in Abrahamic Faith

Wisdom Abraham

“Knowledge is power,” is an oft-repeated saying. In an information economy this makes perfect sense, and our educational system is geared to develop know-how.

Wisdom, on the other hand, sometimes seems a neglected virtue. It is the realm of philosophers, maybe, who have little to do with practical life. Or religion, often considered a private domain.

The Abrahamic religions, however, esteem the cultivation of wisdom over and above simple knowledge. Baghdad built the famed “House of Wisdom” when Islam represented the pinnacle of human civilization, translating classical texts that eventually reached the West.

Jewish writings nearly deified “Sophia” as a personification of wisdom. Along with Christianity, these traditions have produced philosophical minds among the greatest the world has ever known.

Which may make it surprising to hear St. Paul esteem being a fool for Christ. In view of the Greek tradition of his day, he said, Christianity is foolishness.

Paul is not subverting this tradition by any means, only highlighting how the wisdom of God in Christ is nonsense in the estimation of the world. Not non-rational, it simply reflects how God’s thoughts are higher than man’s.

Nonetheless, one of the tasks of faith is demonstrating its plausibility to the world. The effort is nobly undertaken by Richard Shumack, in one of the most contested of fields. His book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, was shortlisted as the Australian Christian book of the year in 2014.

A philosopher by training, Shumack is a professor at Melbourne School of Theology and part of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry team. It can be said at the outset: he finds Christianity superior to Islam. Not surprising – he is a Christian.

Two things are noteworthy about his book, however. First, the absolute respect his gives the Islamic tradition, interacting in friendship with men he considers to be among the Muslim world’s top philosophical minds. There is great wisdom in their faith, he agrees.

And second, the difference in paradigm that makes all the difference. Islam conceives a legislative model between God and man; Christianity, a relational. Wisdom follows from both, he says, but the latter is preferable and better accords with the world.

Shumack does not presume to prove the truth of Christianity’s claims. Similar to Islam, the challenge of monotheism is dealt with elsewhere. But finding his Muslim scholar friends assert the philosophical superiority of Islam over an incoherent Christianity, Shumack was compelled to pick up the gauntlet. He fully admits, of course, that key Christian concepts appear to place Muslims at an advantage.

But in each chapter he builds his case sequentially. Certainty. God’s Hiddenness. Sin. Trinity. Incarnation. Cross. Revelation. Divine Ethics. Politics. Each is a problem to tackle in the Muslim-Christian conversation. On some points monotheists share similar challenges. On others, the Christian is on the defensive.

With deference and respect, at times Shumack tries to turn the tables. But for the most part he simply returns to his central thesis:

Islam makes sense if one sees God as creator, legislator, and master. But Christianity makes sense if God is in addition, father.

To many Muslims this is foolishness. God has no son; he is utterly different from his creation. But it is the central point of Christianity: God’s word made flesh, crucified, and resurrected.

Perhaps both are fools to the atheist or modern secularist, so let Muslims and Christians be friends. Shumack’s book is polemical but warm, inviting response from his Muslim philosopher-friend.

There is no reason religious debate cannot be so. The world is much in need of wisdom, and the Abrahamic faiths possess it in abundance.

Unfortunately, their mutual conversation often demonstrates the opposite, showing that living out wisdom is another question entirely.

If we be fools, let it be for the right reason, in the right spirit. Abraham left the security of his land and family, and nearly sacrificed his son. Today he is honored by over half of humanity, a blessing to the whole world.

May this be true of his descendants, Muslims, Christians, and Jews altogether.

Wisdom of Islam Foolishness of Christianity

Arab West Report Europe Published Articles

Islam and Europe: Polemics or Engagement?

Swiss Islam

Polemics are poison to interfaith relations. Unfortunately the salve of dialogue and cooperation often fails to make as wide an impression, leaving wary religious communities under the assumption of mutual opposition. Polemics reduces ambiguity and nuance, allowing the non-specialist citizen to appreciate his or her own heritage when challenged by ideologies of a foreign ‘other’. Yet this reduction is achieved in a manner often repulsive to the ‘other’, no matter how much it may be reflective of part of the ideology. The specialist in interfaith relations deals with the complexity, but the audience is often limited. By speaking to the street the polemicist simultaneously comforts and infuriates.

This is very much the situation currently governing the Mediterranean world. Arab Muslims widely believe Europe is dominated by ‘Islamophobia’ – a rejectionist attitude which dismisses their faith. For example, Johannes Jansen, whom I wrote about here concerning his book, ‘Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’, writes concerning their prophet:

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, may have been born around 570 AD in Mecca and if he existed, he died in Medina around 632 (italics mine).

Questions of historicity in the academic world are proper and legitimate, but Jansen, though a scholar, writes popularly. After first undermining the religion of Islam at its source, he reinforces its oppositional nature through irresponsible generalization:

Also printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West. They see the West as an enemy, and it is their religious background that encourages such judgements.

Critique of such ideas may be found elsewhere, but suffice it to say that when attitudes such as these reach the shores of North Africa and the Middle East, let alone communities of Muslims resident in Europe, interfaith coexistence and cooperation receives a setback.

Jan Slomp
Jan Slomp

This is why the example of European Christian leaders necessitates wider dissemination, especially as concerns their response toward the Muslim minorities in their midst. Jan Slomp is a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and together with Hans Voecking summarized the history of this interaction. This article is a summary of their essay, ‘The Churches and Islam in Europe’, published in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, vol. 21, 2011.

Worthy to note is that Christian leaders did not consider the wave of Muslim immigration to be a religious issue at all, in the beginning. Instead, it was a socio-economic challenge, and churches organized to assist. In 1964 Protestant and Orthodox churches founded the Committee for Migrant Workers in Europe, while Roman Catholics formed the International Catholic Migration Committee shortly thereafter. Though these services had a religious subsection, the churches deliberately put priority on service and love before issues of doctrine and belief. They believed the Gospel called them to do so.

It soon became clear to both groups, however, that the presence of Muslim immigrants in particular placed challenges in front of local Christian congregations. In 1976 Christian leaders organized a conference to directly consider the needs of Muslim communities in Europe along with those of traditional Christians vis-à-vis their new neighbors. Ali Merad, an Algerian professor resident in France detailed the Muslim position. They needed in particular:

  • Proper housing
  • Job security
  • Children’s schooling
  • Religious education in public schools
  • Facilities to worship and practice Islamic festivals

Merad argued that by fulfilling these needs the Muslim world would receive a positive view of Christianity and promote reconciliation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Third World. Indigenous Arab Christians, especially, would be indispensable mediators between East and West.

Slomp relates that thirty-five years later, to a large degree, these needs have been largely addressed. Yet the conference also spelled out principles to be implemented in the churches, including:

  • Respect for Muslims requires greater knowledge of their religion
  • Islam and Christianity to be presented correctly
  • Churches establish offices to meet with Muslim representatives

In 1978 Christian leaders recognized many churches were still slow to relate to their Muslim neighbors in witness and service, and thus another conference was held. It tasked three committees to produce reports through which to guide Christian response. The first concerned working together with Muslims to protect and further their basic human rights as a minority community. The second envisioned positive cooperation between the two faiths in confronting secularism as a dominant ideology. The third, however, dealt with theological questions, and failed to reach consensus.

The difficulty in theology led Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders to establish a new organization in 1979, the Consultative Committee on Islam in Europe. A conference held was again motivated to encourage witness and service to Muslim neighbors, but emphasized this was especially in light of their religious freedom and the necessity of social integration. Work was established to create literature for local churches to educate properly about Islam, as well as to highlight instances in which Muslims suffered discrimination. Issues of theology, however, continued to be contentious.

Most Christian leaders in these meetings were challenging themselves to respond positively to the message of Islam as a partner in monotheism. Though keen not to water down the distinctives of Christian theology, many urged Muhammad to be accepted as a prophet within the continuing Old Testament tradition. Leaders emphasized common positions on ethics and urged cooperation in promoting spirituality. Hope was expressed that Muslims might continue to honor Jesus and be attracted to him, within an eschatological position where God would ‘restore all things (also all things Islamic transformed by him) in heaven and on earth into a unity in Christ’.

Such positions made many local churches uncomfortable, as they felt Islam was being made too akin to Christianity, which might lower the barriers for conversion away from the faith. No firm positions were taken, but in 1987 the Islam in Europe Committee was formed between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to improve Islamic studies in all seminaries and theological faculties in Europe for the benefit of ordinary congregations, among others, by inviting Muslim teachers. In particular they wished to move beyond studies of comparative religion by allowing space for Quranic studies into the curriculum for Biblical studies, by which Islam might integrate into every aspect of theological inquiry.

However much the committee influenced local congregations, it was disbanded in 2009 in light of two encouraging developments. First, it was noticed that many churches by this time had incorporated an Islam desk to engage their congregants and communities. Second, the formal work of local churches in regional conferences was honored, as local leaders gathered to consult and exchange experiences. Across the continent churches had become aware of the peculiarities of these now Muslim citizens, and were engaging with them for the common good.

The differences in approach are apparent. Polemicists begin by viewing these newcomers to Europe as a religious other, make generalizations about their faith, emphasize points of departure, and establish a foundation of fear and opposition. While undoubtedly Christian people have engaged in such polemics, the Christian leadership of Europe has taken a different approach. They began by serving the humanity of these immigrants, subsequently recognizing the implications of their religious differences. Yet instead of opposition they sought understanding, integration, support for human rights, and even pushed the boundaries of Christian theology to find common ground.

In brief evaluation, if there were faults in the efforts of Christian leaders, it lies in the level of popular engagement. Polemicists have enough academic study to be accredited as experts, but their strength lies in simplification and mass appeal. Their message is also easily translatable through the media. European Christian leaders, on the other hand, hosted conferences, formed committees, and issued recommendations. These are not the avenues to reach the common man. Furthermore, in accepting the challenge to engage theology with Islam, they threatened the simple faith of the local believer. This can well aid the polemicist who reinforces popular belief through fear, now also of ‘compromising’ leadership.

Yet these Christian leaders are no ivory tower theoreticians. Each and every step was calculated to form wide councils of all denominational leadership, with an eye toward speaking toward the common man. Such broad consultation and engagement is done to build a network that can withstand media-driven and politicized polemicists. They printed literature and nurtured regional networks of pastors and priests. They assured the predominant message from the pulpit was one of engagement and respect. This is slow work which does not command attention. Yet despite the popularity of polemicists, it was noted that nearly all Muslim essential needs as a minority community have been met. Where this is lacking, especially as regards full integration, there may be indication the Christian message has fallen on the deaf ears of a secular population still Christian in heritage. This is a fertile ground for polemicism.

Unfortunately, there are polemicists in the Muslim world also. Despite the successes of Christian leaders in welcoming the Muslim ‘other’, many are quick to highlight Jansen or others as typical of a dominant European rejectionism. Yet the reasoned attitude in the Muslim world regards Europe as a place of freedom and equality, where Muslims have largely shared in a better life. Economics above all determine voting by the feet – immigrants continue to pour into Europe – but without the foundation of welcome labored for by Christian leaders over many decades, they might not be so eager to come.

Yet it is France’s niqab ban or Switzerland’s forbiddance of minarets that pervades common Muslim perception of Europe, aided by local polemicists. Has Murad’s prediction failed, that European attention to Muslim immigrant needs would reflect positively on Christianity and foster reconciliation? Slomp demurs that over this same time period the position of indigenous Christians in the Middle East has not improved. He takes no position on Muslim world reciprocity towards Europe, at least in this essay.

Yet this question highlights the seductive danger of polemics. ‘We’ are better than ‘they’ is the lens through which it is asked. The superiority of self and kin is inherent to human nature; Christian leaders have demonstrated the spirit of their faith is to overcome it.

Service, welcome, equality, and love – this is what the Europe Christian leaders have sought to build. In dialogue with Muslims, they may just find the ‘other’ intends the same. Jansen may doubt, but it is only through engagement that truth is discovered. Faith demands such risk; it is the salve that undoes the poison.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.