Windows on Islam

An interview with Dr William Shepard and Paul & Adrienne Thompson

 

Dr William Shepard is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Retired, at the University of Canterbury. He completed his PhD in Comparative Religion at Harvard University and has studied and taught about Islam for over thirty years, living in Egypt for one year and visiting a number of other Muslim countries. He is the author of two books and a large number of articles on Islam, particularly Islam in the modern world. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he currently attends All Saints Anglican Church in Sumner, Christchurch.

Paul Thompson was born in one Muslim country, grew up in a second and worked for 20 years in a third. While there he studied the local practice of both orthodox and folk Islam and also completed Masters papers in this area at Fuller Seminary in the USA. Paul also taught courses on Islam at an Asian theological seminary.

Adrienne Thompson has lived 38 years in Asia where she and Paul brought up their four children. Adrienne has a particular interest in the beliefs and practices of Muslim women, especially the poor and less educated. Paul and Adrienne and their family are now based in New Zealand but all look forward to returning to Asia some day, "the sooner the better", they say!

The news media has repeatedly reported Muslims insisting that the word Islam means 'peace' when it actually means 'submission'. What is it about Islam that makes Muslims emphasise its peacefulness?

William: The word 'Islam' means 'submission' or 'commitment' to God. It comes from the same verbal root as the words for 'peace' (silm or salam) and has been defined by Muslims as "entering into peace". Implicit in this is the idea that to be at peace with God is to be at peace with oneself, one's neighbours and the whole of creation. Given the fact that Islam is so often presented as warlike in the media and elsewhere, it is natural for Muslims to emphasise the peaceful dimension.

Paul and Adrienne: The words 'Islam' and 'Salam' both come from the same root in Arabic. Like Hebrew, Arabic words are constructed from root forms with three consonants. For both 'Islam' and 'Salam' the root consonants are S, L, M and so in the Arabic mind 'submission' (to Allah) is closely related to 'peace'. Perhaps you could say that submission to Allah is the only true road to peace. 'Salam' is the same as the Hebrew 'Shalom'.

It has been said that "the truth [about Islam] lies not so much in the middle between the two extremes of peace and violence, but manages to embrace both extremes at the same time. It is true that many individual Muslims are peace-loving and law-abiding. But it is not true that 'peace' is the main characteristic of faith of Islam." In what ways does Islam embrace violence?

William: Islam calls for peace and encourages people to forgive wrongs done to them but permits - and in some situations even commands - violence, as, for example, in retribution or self-defence. Islam considers 'turning the other cheek' to be impracticable and even an abdication of social responsibility in many situations. What Islam calls for is not much different from what most Christians practice, but it lacks the basis for principled pacifism that the model of Jesus Christ provides. According to some interpretations violence is permissible to extend Islamic rule. Here, too, Christians have acted in similar ways in the past and even quite recently (eg in ex-Yugoslavia).

There have been suggestions that Islamic terrorists are simply following the instructions of the Qur'an which teaches that active pursuit of non-Muslims with the intent to harm and even kill is acceptable in order to enforce submission to the Qur'an. Is this a fair conclusion to draw?

William: There are a few Qur'anic passages that call on Muslims to attack non-Muslims to force them to submit and traditional interpretation has spelled out the rules and conditions for this. There is, however, room for debate as to whether these passages actually require aggressive action today. It is hard in any case to see that they justify terrorism.

If Muslims were to cite certain Old Testament passages and conclude from them that the Christian Bible supports genocide we would point out that in the context of the whole Bible, including the teachings of Jesus, such violence is not condoned. Are the passages which promote violence in the Qur'an similarly modified by other parts of the Qur'an?

William: There are certainly passages in the Qur'an that promote non-violence, eg "No compulsion in religion". In Christian thinking the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament in such matters. In the Muslim case, both kinds of passages are within the same scripture, so the decision as to which modifies which is more complex. Traditional interpretation has usually held that the passages calling for violence in certain situations supersede those calling for non-violence, but this interpretation is open to debate.

Paul and Adrienne: The centre of the argument would be on the sequence of revelation. Islamic theology contends that a later verse may abrogate an earlier if they are seen to be in conflict. Moderate and extremist would debate the sequence of revelation of the particular verses. The Qur'an as written down is not in the sequence in which the revelations were given.

We hear a lot of talk about Muslims wanting to convert the entire world to Islam. Is this part of Islamic teaching, and if so, in what way is this desire different from that of Christians who want everyone to come to Christ?

Paul and Adrienne: Yes, Islam is a missionary religion. Muslims believe that in the Qur'an they have the explicit word of God which lays down precise rules about how God must be worshipped and served. With this conviction of truth they feel compelled to proclaim - and persuade people to accept - this faith.

The motives of those who sought in the past and who now seek to spread Islam are undoubtedly as varied as the motives of those who sought and seek to spread Christianity. Desire for trade and political advantage, desire for cultural domination mingle with the desire for the love and praise of God.

William: Islam is basically similar to Christianity here. Both traditionally claim to have the final and true way to God for all human beings.

Islam talks about Jews and Christians as "the people of the book". Does the Qur'an view Jews and Christians in a different way to the way it sees people of other faiths?

William: Yes. Islam recognises Moses and Jesus as true prophets and Jews and Christians as their respective followers, but it also believes that the messages of Moses and Jesus were corrupted by their followers and, in any case, that Muhammad supersedes them. In view of this, Jews and Christians have traditionally had a recognised but subordinate place in Muslim societies. Other religions are generally seen as purely human inventions and their followers have been less likely to be tolerated in Muslim societies, but matters have varied with time and place and vary considerably today.

Paul and Adrienne: Islam sees itself in an historical succession with Jews and Christians. It accepts the validity (with some questions about the accuracy of transmission) of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but sees the message of Muhammad as the culmination of the revelation. Adam, Moses, David, and the other Biblical characters through to and including Jesus are thought of as 'Muslims' (in the sense of submitted to Allah).

Is this 'different view' concerning Jews and Christians adhered to in practice by modern Muslims?

William: Many Muslims adhere to the traditional view today, although non-Muslims have at least theoretical equality before the law in most countries. There are, however, many passages in the Qur'an that put Jews, Christians and Muslims on the same level and on the basis of these many Muslims today see complete equality of religion as the proper interpretation of Islam.

Paul and Adrienne: It is impossible to generalise. In conversation with individual Muslims, often the answer would be 'Yes'. In the Muslim country in which we lived our landlord was amazed to hear the Imam of his local mosque tell the congregation at Friday prayers that Christians would also go to heaven. But as we know, events in history since Muhammad's day have radically affected how Muslims view Christians and Jews, so that to many Muslims America - supposedly a 'Christian' nation - is viewed as 'the great Satan' and Jews as the ultimate enemy.

Can a Muslim believe in Jesus as his Saviour and remain a Muslim?

William: No, not in the sense of one who suffers for our sins. For Muslims Jesus is a highly respected prophet who brought a message from God, but not more than that. They do not believe in Jesus as the incarnation of God. They believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, but not his crucifixion or resurrection. Most, but not all, believe that he was taken up into heaven by God (in effect an 'ascension') and some believe he will return before the end of time.

Paul and Adrienne: Historically Muslims drawn to faith in Jesus have been instructed to make a choice: Islam or Christianity. Those choosing to follow Christ did so knowing that they faced certain expulsion from their family and community, persecution and quite possibly death. The choice to be baptised meant adopting a new name, a new culture and a new society. Mission to Muslims traditionally meant a few hard-won converts, rarely has a church of Muslim converts been established.

Modern Western Christians have very little appreciation of the intense importance of family and society in other cultures, including the cultures of the Bible. To give an example from one Muslim country: for a Muslim to become a Christian he or she must change not only the place, language and style of corporate worship, but the posture for personal prayer; the vocabulary of faith (adopting a new name for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit); the style of their clothing; titles given to family members; patterns of relationship between men and women and vocational options - quite apart from the personal ramifications of expulsion from their family. Their total relinquishment of their old identity is shown by the fact that they take a new 'Christian' name. It is simply unthinkable to have an individualised faith; you must have a religion and your religion must govern the life of your community.

The early church faced the question of whether Gentile believers in Jesus had to become Jews in order to be his disciples. The intensity of the debate is hinted at in Paul's letters as well as in the Acts description of the Jerusalem council. Some workers among Muslims compare the situation for Muslims wanting to become believers in Jesus. They seek to distinguish the essentials from the peripheral cultural issues and to place no stumbling-block or barrier in their way other than the stumbling block of the Cross.

As a result of this approach some people have become followers of Isa al Mashih as Jesus is named in the Qur'an and continue to call themselves Muslims. They consider that they are submitting to God in the fullest sense. They use the term 'Isai Muslim'. Their families and communities may or may not accept them on these terms. For some using this description is a way of remaining in their natural community, with the hope of drawing others in, rather than utterly alienating them.

Whether this approach is acceptable, and the degree to which it is applied, remains a matter of passionate debate.

Is it true that a threat of severe persecution and even death hangs over anyone who wishes to leave the Muslim faith, and that consequently in Muslim countries no churches exist where Muslim converts to Christianity meet openly?

Paul and Adrienne: The threat of death and persecution is there, but it is not quite true that there are no churches of Muslim converts in Muslim countries. There can be no such churches in countries governed by the strict application of Islamic Law - the Saria - but this is applied in various degrees. Some of the most populated Muslim countries are governed by secular laws, not Islamic law. In some of these countries communities of faith exist with varying degrees of visibility and freedom.

William: In the traditional interpretation of Islamic law the death penalty applies to anyone who apostasises from Islam. In practice, things have varied. In most areas this has ceased to be the law for the last century or two, although there have been moves to bring it back. In practice, the social pressures against apostasy are enormous. Because of the close relation between religion and society in Islam, apostasy is often seen as treason, as indeed was the case in many Christian societies of the past. Nevertheless, there have been, and are, Muslims who convert to Christianity and who meet in churches more or less openly.

Why is it that a non-Muslim can easily become a Muslim but a Muslim is not allowed to convert to another faith?

Paul and Adrienne: Religion is not seen as a personal choice. It is a community thing. It is the whole of life. The convert has become a traitor to family, to community, to country, and so deserves the penalty of traitors.

William: Muslims consider their religion to be the final form of religion. While one may convert to Islam from an earlier form of religion, reverse movement is not appropriate. To use an analogy I have sometimes heard, one moves from high school to university but not from university to high school.

The Taliban enforces an extreme form of Islam. Within our own faith we are aware of vast differences in beliefs and practices - labels such as 'liberal', 'fundamentalist', 'conservative' abound. What are some of the differences between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims?

William: There are such differences and such labels are used in writing in English about Islam. (The labels used in Islamic languages are somewhat different and I will not deal with them here.) Generally they involve differing positions on the relation of religion to society and specifically to the modernisation of society, which involves adopting and adapting Western ideas and practices.

The following labels are the most common. 'Secularists' hold that religion and society should be separate, as in many Western countries. 'Reformists' hold that religion should guide all areas of society but should be interpreted flexibly and largely in line with relevant Western ideas and practices. Together, secularism and reformism constitute 'modernism'. 'Liberalism' is a form of modernism, as are socialism, nationalism and other '-isms'.

'Fundamentalists' or 'Islamists' hold that religion should guide all areas of society and should be interpreted in a strictly Islamic way but with sufficient flexibility to be relevant to modern conditions. Both Islamism and modernism wish to purify many traditional practices. 'Conservative' or 'traditionalist' refers to those who want to continue the traditional beliefs and practices as they have been in a given area, with minimal and gradual adaptation to modern conditions. The Taliban appear to be a combination of traditionalist and Islamist.

Paul and Adrienne: Moderate Muslims have always practised tolerance, particularly to 'the people of the book': Jews in the Middle Ages lived far more safely under Muslim rulers than under Christians. Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan - all these are Muslim countries, but the style of Islam practised varies from country to country and from group to group within the countries.

Some Christians believe that Islam is a demonic religion and that Allah is the opposite of the Christian God; others maintain that Allah is the same as the Christian God but simply has a different name and that the two religions (Islam and Christianity) are not so very different. What is the nature of God as portrayed in the Qur'an and what are the basic differences between Christianity and Islam?

William: As a word, 'Allah' refers to both the Christian God and the Muslim God, which according to Muslims and most Christians are the same God. 'Allah' is the word for God in the Arabic Bible. Whether Islam is a demonic religion is a matter of opinion; I do not believe that it is, except insofar as any religion (including Christianity) can be demonic sometimes.

God in the Qur'an is the creator and sustainer of the universe, who has placed humans on earth to be his representatives, has guided them through his prophets and will reward or punish them according to their deeds at the end of time. The conception is basically similar to that of the Bible, except that God is not called Father and neither human beings in general, nor Jesus in particular, are called his son(s). Muslims insist on the strict unity of God and reject the Christian idea of Trinity. Muslims and Christians recognise many of the same religious figures, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Specific ritual practices are different, although prayer, scripture reading and sermons are part of both traditions.

Paul and Adrienne: Islam developed from Jewish and Christian roots. Muhammad never questioned that the God who revealed the Qur'an to him was the same as he who had spoken to Moses and Jesus. Muslims recite on every occasion that "God is the Merciful and Compassionate One." He is Creator, Sustainer, Ruler of the Universe, and Judge.

Superficially Christianity can look quite like Islam. Both acknowledge one God who is revealed in Creation and through the prophets. There is a key figure in each case: Muhammad, and Jesus. There is a Holy Book: the Qur'an, and the Bible. But in fact there is a very profound difference.

Though we may talk of the Bible as the "Word of God" we mean something quite different from what Muslims mean when they describe the Qur'an as the Word of God. The Qur'an is pre-existent in heaven. Every word is not merely inspired but inscribed in the heavenly copy and dictated from there to Muhammad who was commanded to 'recite' what he heard. Strictly speaking the Qur'an cannot be translated, but must be learned in Arabic. Any translation should rather be described as a paraphrase. Worship and daily prayers always include recitations from the Qur'an in Arabic.

Christians, on the other hand, affirm that the Word of God is not a book but a Person: Jesus, God himself become a human being. Such a concept is blasphemy to Muslims but it is the heart of the Christian gospel. The distinctive Christian understanding of God is that he is "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ". All that we know of God we see embodied in Jesus.

The core of being a Muslim is obeying the laws given by God. The core of being a Christian is a relationship with God through Jesus.

What are some beliefs and values which Christians and Muslims hold in common?

Paul and Adrienne: The six core beliefs of Islam are: belief in one God, belief in Prophets, belief in Angels, belief in the Judgement, belief in the Holy Books (which include the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus as well as the Qur'an) and belief in God's over-ruling providence.

Christians would probably assent to these but explain them very differently.

Important values of Islam which are shared by Christians include justice, compassion to the poor (Muslims must give away a proportion of their wealth), zeal for the honour of God and loyalty to the community of faith.

William: Common values include justice, mercy, compassion, charity, courage, etc. Love is an important Muslim value but does not have the centrality that it does in Christianity.

Could you explain the concept of Jihad - both in its personal context: the fight against sin in the individual life; and in its communal context: the call to Muslims worldwide to engage in holy war.

William: As a word, 'Jihad' means 'striving', and this can be in either a violent or non-violent way, as can the Christian word 'crusade'. Muslims often describe striving in war as the 'lesser Jihad' and striving against one's own immoral tendencies as the 'greater Jihad'.

Referring to warlike Jihad, the Qur'an speaks of "those who strive in the path of God with their possessions and their lives". In a sense, early Christians could afford to be non-violent because the Roman Empire kept basic law and order. Muhammad's Arabia was a place of tribal anarchy. When the leaders of his tribe opposed him by force he had to fight them until they accepted his religion; otherwise they would have destroyed him and his movement. At least, this is how Muslims see it.

Muslims appear to disagree about the circumstances under which Jihad is legitimate. Is Jihad purely a defensive response or can it include the initiation of aggression?

William: Defensive Jihad - to repel attack by non-Muslims against the Muslim community - is generally agreed to be valid. Offensive Jihad - to spread Islamic rule to new areas and compel people in those areas to either become Muslim or accept Muslim conditions for retaining their faith - occurred in the early Islamic conquests and from time to time later on. Traditionally it is considered valid as long as certain conditions are met, eg the enemy is first invited to submit to Islam, non-combatants are spared, etc.

There is much debate on precise details of both kinds of Jihad. Today many Muslims believe that only defensive Jihad is valid and some would say that all past Jihads were in fact defensive. Muhammad's Jihads can be viewed as defensive as I suggested in the answer to the previous question.

The conquests outside of Arabia are sometimes justified on the grounds that the empires of the time would not allow Islam to be preached in their territories. The main form of Jihad today is the struggle against Western imperialism, and this is considered defensive. The people who destroyed the Trade Towers in New York almost certainly considered their action a form of defensive Jihad, though most Muslims would disagree with this view.

Paul and Adrienne: The interpretation of the meaning of Jihad varies widely through the Muslim world and through different ages of history. Some Muslims would decry any sort of violent war, others practise it literally as we all know. Dr J Dudley Woodberry, a professor at Fuller Seminary who has worked in a number of Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, states:

We have been bombarded by generalisations about the peacefulness or militancy of Islam or by the equating of fundamentalists (Islamists) and militants. All fail to grasp the diversity within Islam and its roots. The Qur'an comprises recitations by Muhammad, believed to come from God, to meet the needs that arose on different occasions. Some were peaceful, others were militant. Therefore either position can be argued for by selecting specific verses or illustrations from history.

In your view why is it that so many Muslims have strong feelings about America and the West?

Paul and Adrienne: The reasons are a tangle of political, historical, cultural and moral factors. The West is seen (not without reason) as decadent, immoral, the source of sexual depravity. When we lived in a Muslim country we cringed to see the films and television programmes broadcast from the West into a Muslim context. We wished we could explain that the West is not all like Baywatch!

America is seen as the supporter of Israel against the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people. Christians are still seen as the people who in the Crusades slaughtered thousands of Muslims in the name of Christ. Western Colonial powers, now seen as exploitative and callous, are also identified as Christian. Muslims (and others) resent the Western cultural domination that is undermining local cultures, destroying ancient crafts and skills. (New Zealanders may well identify with some of this type of cultural resentment against bigger nations!)

William: One must note that these strong feelings are both positive and negative. Science and many political and cultural practices from the West offer Muslims a better life in many ways. But they have come out of the barrel of a gun, so to speak. Western armies imposed Western rule in much of the Muslim world in the nineteenth century and still frequently impose the Western will, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The introduction of Western practices has, at least initially, exacerbated divisions in Muslim societies and strengthened the strong against the weak. Western dominance has caused a crisis of cultural self-confidence. Given that Islam is said to be the final form of religion and has guidance for all areas of life, it is hard to understand why Muslims are in a weak position today, especially since for many centuries they were dominant. Today America is the prime symbol of the West, its power, its arrogance, its affluence, its freedom, its generosity - a powerful source of ambivalence.

 

Information on Islam

ISLAM ONLINE

http://www.islam-online.net

http://www.islamicity.org

See things from a Muslim perspective on these two sites.

WORLDSKIP DOT COM

http://www.worldskip.com

All sorts of information about any country in the world. Government, economy, people and culture, maps, history, travel information and weather, including any of the national newspapers which are available on line.

WORLD OF ISLAM CD-ROM

http://www.gmi.org/products/islamcd.htm

A strategic missions resource for understanding Muslims and ministering in the Islamic context. This CD-ROM contains the full text of over 50 of the best books on Islam; seminary courses; an extensive bibliography; as well as photographs, maps and Web links. The result of a three-year co-operative project by Lausanne, ISIC, Fuller Seminary and Global Mapping International. (Copies of the CD are also available in New Zealand through Barnabas Fund contact [email protected] at the special price of NZ$62.00 including p&p.)

MUSLIM RESOURCES

http://www.the-good-way.com

http://www.call-of-hope.com

http://www.light-of-life.com

For those seeking information on Muslim ministry resources these sites carry materials in the 20 most common Muslim languages, hoping to provide Muslims (and those sharing with them) more information about the person of Jesus and his hope for mankind.

THE CHURCH IN THE MUSLIM WORLD

http://www.barnabasfund.org

"Update On The Suffering Church In The Muslim World" is produced monthly by The Barnabas Fund. Available by post from The Barnabas Fund, PO Box 526, Feilding 5600, New Zealand, or by e-mail: [email protected]

ARAMCO WORLD

Aramco World is a free publication that provides insight into the Muslim world. Cumulative indexes are available free on request and back issues can be also be ordered free with bulk copies available for use by classes, travel groups etc. Write to Special Requests, Aramco World, Box 2106, Houston, Texas 77252-2106, USA (no email address). Subscription requests go to a different address: Aramco World, Box 469008, Escondido, California 92046-9008, USA.

ARAB WORLD MINISTRIES ONLINE

http://www.gospelcom.net/awm

Founded in 1881, Arab World Ministries is an evangelical, interdenominational, international mission organisation that aims to establish and encourage the church in the Arab Muslim world and to proclaim the Christian message to Muslims in the Arab world. This site offers a good range of information about Christian work in the Arab world.

AMNESTY

http://www.amnesty.org

This site is currently carrying plenty of material on Afghanistan.

The Origins of Islam

Islam began with the mission of Muhammad the son of Abdullah in the West-Central Arabian city of Mecca between 610 and 632 AD. Arabia was on the edge of the more 'civilised' world of the time and Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism (the religion of Iran) had made inroads, but most people held to their traditional pagan beliefs and practices. They believed in the existence of a creator God, Allah, but mostly worshipped lower deities.

Muhammad, who was a caravan merchant, began to have auditions which he believed to be direct messages from Allah and which commanded people to worship Allah alone. He saw himself standing in a line of previous prophets - Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others - who had preached the same message to other peoples. For Muslims Islam does not begin with Muhammad. Islam is the religion of all of the prophets. Muhammad was the last of these and reestablished it in its final and universal form.

The messages from Allah came in short passages from time to time over a period of 22 years, often in response to particular situations. They were memorised and written down and about 20 years after his death collected into the present form of the Qur'an.

Muhammad gathered a small group of followers but the Meccan leaders opposed his preaching and persecuted him and his followers. By 622 the mission had reached an impasse and Muhammad accepted an invitation to move to the city of Yathrib, about 240 miles away. There he was able to establish himself as leader of the city, which became known as Medinat al-Nabi (City of the Prophet), or Medina for short. The move from Mecca to Medina is known as the Hijrah and the year in which it occurred is the first year of the Muslim (Hijri, or Anno Hegirae, AH) calendar.

From Medina he conducted an on-and-off war and political campaign against the Meccans for eight years, until they admitted defeat and accepted Islam. By the time of Muhammad's death most of Arabia had accepted Islam. A few years later Muslim armies moved out of Arabia and within a century had created an empire extending from Spain to what is now Pakistan.

At first, the Muslims constituted a small ruling elite over large populations of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others, who retained their religions and customs in return for accepting Muslim rule and paying certain taxes. As time went on people converted to Islam out of conviction or convenience and after about two centuries the majority of the population of the empire was Muslim. In much of the Middle East the older religious groups still continue, but as small minorities. As a result, the Muslim community changed from being an Arab community to being a multi-ethnic one, as it is today.

The main sectarian or denominational division in Islam relates to the choice of leadership after Muhammad. According to Sunnis, who comprise about 85% of Muslims today, Muhammad died without designating a successor and his successors, or caliphs, were chosen by the community. The first four of these, covering the period 632-661, are known as the 'Rightly-guided caliphs' and their period, along with that of Muhammad, is viewed as a kind of 'golden age' when Islam was established and properly administered.

On the other hand, the Shi'is, who comprise about 15% of Muslims today, believe that Muhammad had designated Ali, his nephew and son-in-law, as leader of the community, or Imam, and the leadership should have continued in his family. The community, however, refused to recognise this. Ali did rule for a time, as the fourth caliph from the Sunni perspective, but none of his successors did.

Shi'i groups differ in the particular lines of Imams they recognise, but the majority recognise a line of twelve, the last of whom disappeared in the mid-ninth century. This is the 'Hidden Imam', who will return sometime to set the world right. Many Sunnis believe in a 'Mahdi', diversely conceived, who will perform a similar function and many believe that Jesus Christ (not Muhammad) will return before the Mahdi.

The primary source of authority for Muslims is the Qur'an, which is the verbatim Word of God. Second is the 'sunnah', or authoritative example of Muhammad (and the Imams, for the Shi'is). These have been interpreted and applied over the centuries by the 'ulama', the scholars or clergy (more like Jewish rabbis than Christian clergy) and traditionalists accept these interpretations as authoritative. Modernists and 'fundamentalists', however, question many of them.

- Bill Shepard

 

Meeting with Muslims

Christians in New Zealand are likely to come across Muslims: students, refugees, immigrants and even New Zealand converts to Islam. What sort of an approach to them will be helpful?

Approach them as you would approach anyone - with interest and respect. Take time to get to know and appreciate them. Remember that Muslims who have come to New Zealand as refugees or as immigrants may have a lot of emotional baggage associated with the word 'Christian'. Their assumptions about Christians and Christianity may not apply here, but it will take them some time to discover that. In the same way don't assume you know what Muslims believe and practice. A far better approach is to ask them about their beliefs. Argument and confrontation are not helpful.

If we have the opportunity to share our beliefs with a Muslim, what words and concepts should we avoid in order not to antagonise them? What features of our faith are likely to attract their attention and sympathy?

Muslims hold very strongly to the one-ness of God. While they respect Jesus as a great prophet, one who was born of a virgin, a miracle worker and the one who is coming again from heaven, they find the term 'Son of God' to be blasphemous because this is understood to mean physical generation: God having sex with Mary. So John 3:16 is not the best Bible verse to start with!

The idea of Jesus as one sent by God is acceptable. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet, so they may be interested to read his teachings.

Many Muslims are drawn to Jesus as a man of compassion, wisdom and power. Most Muslims are very comfortable with Christian prayer, including prayer in Jesus' name. They will appreciate your praying with and for them and may ask you to do so.

Don't at any time denigrate Muhammad or the Qur'an. Muslims never name any of the prophets without adding a title of respect. Christians tend to say casually 'Jesus' or 'Paul' - this sounds strange and disrespectful to Muslim ears. Say: "the Lord Jesus" or "Saint Paul", "the Holy Bible", "the prophet Abraham".

If we're able to make friends with Muslims, are there any habits we can adopt or practices we can avoid in order to help Muslims feel comfortable with us?

Most people know that Muslims don't eat pork and would remember not to serve pork or bacon, but some Muslims may feel uncomfortable eating any food cooked in your house if they think you even stock such forbidden foods. If you're inviting Muslims for a meal you can shop at a 'halal' butcher for meat slaughtered according to Muslim regulations. If you want to take them an edible gift, fruit is probably the most acceptable thing.

Cultural practices vary hugely between Muslim countries, but be aware that there is almost always much more formality and regulation of relationships between men and women. As a woman, don't take a seat close to a Muslim man, and vice versa. Be sensitive as to whether your dress might embarrass them: don't call on your Muslim friends wearing shorts.

Muslims handle the Qur'an with respect and care, keeping it in a special place, washing their hands before touching it. They may be shocked if you haul a well-worn New Testament out of your back pocket and thumb through it with grubby fingers. Let them see that you too respect the Holy Books by the way you handle the Bible.

If you're sharing Christian books with Muslim friends, choose books that don't have illustrations. For some Muslims any pictorial representation of a religious theme can border on idolatry which is forbidden.

- Adrienne and Paul Thompson


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