Muslim followers of Jesus…

There has been a bit of a buzz around the blogosphere triggered by this article (HT TSK!)

It points us to a long tradition of followers of Jesus within the Muslim faith. Many of us kind of know something of the fact that Jesus is regarded as a messenger sent by God within Islam. The Qu’ran makes direct reference to Jesus around 25 times.

It records his miraculous birth to the Virgin Mary.

His mission to point people back to God.

His death and resurrection.

And a promise of his second coming.

But even if we knew something of this, we also knew that Islam denies the deity of Jesus, or that he might have been the Son of God.

And most Christians, for thousands of years, have sought to demonise all followers of the Prophet- not just as misguided, but as something darker and more scary.

In this time of war and terror, an examination of the engine of faith on the actions of individuals and whole societies has never been more urgent- certainly not in our life times.

Back to the article.

What Joseph Cumming dared to do was to ask whether it was possible to be a follower of Jesus AND a Moslem. He makes a specific comparison to Messianic Jews, who are able to reconcile their Jewish identity with a faith in Jesus. He points to a movement in the 1980’s of Muslim believers who sought to live out their faith in Jesus within their Islamic context- some even facing persecution along the way.

Now this debate will no doubt trigger many polarised responses- and a whole lot of technical theological debate. What is interesting to me is that this article was placed on the Lausanne Movement website– staunchly Evangelical, with it’s roots in the life and work of Dr Billy Graham.

But what remains for me out of this discussion  is a fragile bridge that may allow the passage of pilgrims who are prepared to work for peace and justice- that may allow again discussion, mutual appreciation and respect between the great ideological faith blocks that oppose one another across the ‘Bethlehem curtain’ (to coin a phrase.)

Many of my friends will recoil in horror. A watering down of faith! An allegiance with the Devil! Syncretism! (I suspect that there are many on the Islamic side of the debate who would use exactly the same phrases.)

Well you know what- If I err, I am going to try to make sure that my error is on the side of grace, and peace, and forgiveness.

Isa would have it no other way.

Reading to understand the other…

This summer I have been reading some literature in an attempt to combine my leisure time with an understanding of Islamic cultures far removed from my own experience.

I am not sure I picked the right source material.

Firstly I read this book.

a thousand splendid suns

I enjoyed the Kite Runner previously, which dealt with a similar period in the history of Afghanistan- but from a very different perspective. This book is beautifully written, with characters that draw you in, and stories that make you sad and glad.

Next I read this book.

the septembers of shiraz

It tells the story of an Iranian family at the end of the Shah’s rule in Iran, and of the Islamic revolution, and the subsequent persecution of the countries rich elite.

Both tell their stories well. The cultures and traditions of their countries felt vibrant and real. I felt the loss of something wonderful as the stories described the rise of religious intolerance that swept away and suppressed older traditions.

Typified perhaps by the blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Both engage with the circumstances that resulted in the rise to power of the Extremists- the involvement of foreign powers, the cycles of violence and civil war. The ungrace that hardens peoples hearts towards unyeilding doctrines and bitter prescriptions for their enforcement.

But I wonder a little about both of these novels- written by naturalised Americans, who arrived in the USA as refugees fleeing from homelands. Their novels reflected both their own personal history, and the dominant perspectives and ideologies of their chosen countries.

So the bad guys were really bad- and were mostly Islamic extremists.

And the survivors fled towards democracy, enlightenment and freedom- in the West.

Accepting that many have indeed made this journey, including the authors themselves, I still wonder at the easy distinctions being made. And how the market in the USA is hungry for these stories, but blind to others.

I can not help but think that there are other stories being told. And eventually we will hear them too- not necessarily contradictory ones, but rather ones that complete a picture. Lives lived facing a different direction. Thriving whilst others suffer.

Like we do.

Hosseini’s title comes from a poem by the 17th Century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. Read it and feel the humanity that flows too in the blood of the other. Hold in your mind the TV picture of broken and battered Kabul, under a cloud of dust thrown up by tank tracks…

Kabul

Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains
And Rose, of the trails of thorns she envies
Her gusts of powdered soil, slightly sting my eyes
But I love her, for knowing and loving are born of this same dust

My song exhalts her dazzling tulips
And at the beauty of her trees, I blush
How sparkling the water flows from Pul-I Bastaan!
May Allah protect such beauty from the evil eye of man!

Khizr chose the path to Kabul in order to reach Paradise
For her mountains brought him close to the delights of heaven
From the fort with sprawling walls, A Dragon of protection
Each stone is there more precious than the treasure of Shayagan

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

Her laughter of mornings has the gaiety of flowers
Her nights of darkness, the reflections of lustrous hair
Her melodious nightingales, with passion sing their songs
Ardent tunes, as leaves enflamed, cascading from their throats

And I, I sing in the gardens of Jahanara, of Sharbara
And even the trumpets of heaven envy their green pastures

Islam and the voice of the Spirit…

quran

If you follow particular streams in the blogosphere, then you will notice how themes emerge- particular issues that crop up here and there. Not surprising really, as we are attracted to those with like interests, and new ideas are viral. At worst this can feel like self congratulatory hot air.

But sometimes there is a feeling that issues arise that are beyond merely like minded people feeding off one another. Some things just feel important, and right- I suppose you could say that there is something of the Spirit mixed in there- speaking into this time and place.

I have this feeling about all the discussion about how we as Christians should engage with Muslim brothers and sisters.

So we see Brian McLaren joining in with the festival of Ramadan, and blogging his experience, along with the chorus of vitriol being aimed at him from fellow Christians.

Check out this excellent and provocative podcast by Samir Salmanovic, called ‘finding our God in the other.

TallSkinnyKiwi reported some thoughts about this issue by John Azumah. This is what Azumah has to say

One of the crucial issues facing Christians around the world today is finding the right balance in our response to the various challenges posed by Islam and engagement with Muslims. The quest for an appropriate Christian response to Islam and engagement with Muslims has sadly polarized Christians along evangelical vs. liberal, truth vs. grace, or confrontational vs. conciliatory lines.

As an African, my own struggle is the way these positions are presented as absolutes in either/or categories. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City (9/11), the Iraq war, the Madrid bombings, etc., the division among Christians has deepened. Reflecting on the situation, Joseph Cummings talks of a titanic struggle going on in the heavenly realms—a struggle not between Muslims and Christians or between Islam and the West, but “a struggle within Christianity itself, a struggle for the soul of the Christian faith.”1

What Cummings is suggesting, and I couldn’t agree more, is that Islam per se is not necessarily the greatest challenge facing Christians today, but rather how Christians choose to respond to Islam. There seems to be a general consensus that we should be talking about Christian responses rather than “response” to Islam.

I tend to agree- for the following reasons-

There is a perception (which I think is far more imaged than real) of a western democratic capitalism under direct attack from Islamic extremism. Terrorist attacks in New York and London, despotic regimes in Iran and Afghanistan, Israel surrounded by Islamic cultures that breed terror and appear to place no value on the life of innocents.

There is truth here. Islamic terrorists have killed and maimed. Islamic governments seeking to reinstate a primitive version of Sharia law have indeed behaved in despicable ways. Israel has been under attack from neighbouring states since 1948.

But- anyone who seeks to look behind the tabloid headlines will be forced to acknowledge the possibility of contradictory evidence and perspectives. Of thousands killed by western soldiers fighting what has all the appearance of a Crusade against the heathen hordes. Raining down techno-terror on villages and refugee camps. Manipulating and propping up despotic regimes in order to keep the oil taps wide open and flowing westwards. You may look at the sheer numbers of dead Muslims killed by both fellow Muslims and the armies of the West, and compare this to our own losses, terrible as each loss is.

We may also be forced to remember a historical perspective that takes and honest look back at the development of our own modern Christian states- of politics of hate fueled by extremist Christians- hate against heretics, or people with black skins. Civil wars, inquisitions and Pogroms. Of how Sharia compares to Puritanical fervours of our own, and how distorted versions of Jihad can be compared to concepts of a Just War.

Some would also point us to the vacant role left in the international power play by the collapse of Communism- and the need to replace the reds under the bed with… something other, external, alien and less than human, wearing a semtex vest and carrying a copy of the Qu’ran. Something to distract and unify us behind our Governments- according to the conspiracy theorists at least.

But despite this, a rather warped but pervasive view of all things Muslim, and all things Islamic, persists. Perhaps this is because of our ignorance. Ignorance of Islamic faith, and Muslim culture. Ignorance of the rich and wonderful cultural heritage. Ignorance of the serial injustice that some Muslim people have experienced for generations, and of how this has been the fertile subsoil for extremism.

And where ignorance and distorted views of reality interact with a Christian faith that demonises rather than seeks to understand, I start to feel that we Christians are losing the way of Jesus, and joining our lot with a different and more earthly Kingdom.

I grew up in a fairly moderate Evangelical Anglican church, and later attended a left of centre kind of charismatic free church. The general view of the Islamic faith was that it was dangerous, despicable, and a deception of the Devil from which people needed to be rescued. We needed to know nothing else- lest we somehow become infected.

Well I no longer fear infection. I rather fear distortion, and accommodation with (oh the irony) our very own Babylon.

Because we Christians are called to live with our faces towards a different way of being- to seek peace where there is war, understanding where there is ignorance, and to look for love where there is hate- to be a source of hope in times of hopelessness, and healing where there is brokenness.

Even (and perhaps in these times especially) for Muslims.

Osama, how the other half see him…

My friend Ali turned up this evening- he had been house sitting for his sister while she had been on holiday so I had not seen him for a few days.

Ali is a singular kind of guy, who has a taste for the kitsch… and his sister found something in the souks of Marrakesh that she knew she would have to take home for her brother. More of this later…

There is a phantom shadow on our age, cast by the missing outline of the twin towers of Manhattan. This shadow has unleashed a new kind of warfare that has global impact- the ‘war against terror.’ On the one side we have the big battalions bent on imposing rough justice in the name of democracy, and on the other, those who have come to see the west as representing everything wrong with this world of ours.

Many things define the difference found between the supporters of the different sides. One side is mostly rich, the other, mostly poor. But perhaps above all, the defining difference is that of religion. One side is predominantly white, Protestant Christian, the other, Muslim.

It is important I think, to understand the other– to walk a while in his shoes and mark the blisters on his heel.

Otherwise, we may fall to that familiar base human default of dehumanising those who are different, and even demonising those who disturb our understanding of normality.

It seems clear that the Muslim world has a different way of seeing this ‘war on terror’ than predominates even in my liberal, left-of-centre world view. For them, this war is a manufactured, imperialist, brutal assault on a whole way of life- a whole faith group. It is the logical outcome of a long line of injustice perpetrated by or supported by the west (and the USA in particular.) Israel, Kosovo, Somalia, Iran, the Kurds, Chechnya, Israel again, and again…

In this way of seeing the world, the ‘war on terror’ is all smoke and mirrors, behind which is OIL. And religion.

That is not to say that people necessarily condone terrorist violence, but they may understand it, and its root causes in a way that we are not able (or willing) to. Many may resent the further trouble Bin Laden has brought down upon the heads of the Muslim world when he attacked the ‘great Satan’ on September the 11th. But his motivation is clear, and his continued defiance of the whole might of the USA continues to give almost univeral satisfaction.

Back to Ali’s present.

With great ceremony, he began to set up some cheap plastic track on our coffee table. He then placed on the track a tank, driven by a bad representation of George W Bush, and in font of this, Osama Bin Laden, on a skateboard. The tank was battery powered, but the skateboard had a magnet whose polarity opposed a magnet on the tank, so as the tank whirred round the track, the skateboard was propelled in front of it, always out of reach.

Here is a phototof the two protagonists, for your viewing pleasure, and education…