What Can Christians Learn from Islam?

November 4, 2007

Bruce Keeley

Pentecost 23     Isaiah 65:17-25     Luke 21:5-19

 

It is an honour to be asked to visit you here at St Matthews. I bring greetings from All Saints, Howick, where we have recently celebrated our beginnings, 160 years ago (in 1847), just 8 years ahead of St Matthews!

 

Thankyou Glynn for the invitation to speak about some aspect of Islam and its relationship with Christianity. My interaction with Muslims began in earnest 20 years ago, with the migration to NZ of significant numbers of people of faiths other than Christian, and particularly in the wake of political unrest in Fiji.

 

Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs who had previously been few in number, and mostly seen only in our larger cities, began to be much more visible. Our religious landscape was changing rapidly, and that posed a very great theological challenge to the Christian majority, many of whom had no experience outside their Christian monoculture.

 

For the past 10 years, I have had the privilege being part of the Council of Christians and Muslims, whose inaugural AGM was held in this church in March 1998.

 

CCM has amongst its aims, the promotion of mutual understanding and respect between Muslims and Christians, and a commitment to work for the elimination of religious prejudice and racism in our society. Two things we agree to avoid: polemics & proselytism.

 

What I’d like to share this morning is some thoughts on what we, as Christians, can learn from Islam. I am not an expert on that great religion. If you want good information about Islam, you should talk with one who practises the faith. Rather, I want to share something of what has personally challenged me in my own faith, as I have come to know and respect and love the followers of the Islamic faith with whom I relate.

 

THE ONE-NESS OF GOD

 

There is no god but God

That’s one of the two great shahadah (testimonies of faith) of Islam;

The other, immediately following it, is that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

Whoever professes these two shahadah is a Muslim; whoever denies them is not.

To say There is no god but God is a not unfamiliar proposition for us, as Christians. It sits very comfortably with the first of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God – you shall have no other gods before me,

Similarly with the opening phrases of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth

 

The challenge for me comes with Islam’s utter clarity and uncompromising insistence upon the oneness of God. As a Christian, I carry with real discomfort, the legacy of nearly 2000 years of Trinitarian speculation about God’s nature. Now I am not a Unitarian – I don’t want to ditch our Trinitarian understanding of God. But I am very, very uncomfortable about what Muslims are quick to perceive as Christian Tri-theism. A belief in not one God but three!

 

We need only to look around at various parts of the church, and to listen to how they pray, to share that impression – the preoccupation with the Holy Spirit as the be-all and end-all, or the elevation of Jesus as synonymous with God, or that fashionable but shallow new religion of ‘inter-faith-ism’, which agrees with everything but is committed to nothing in particular.

 

When Muslims enter into dialogue with Christians, they expect to meet a Christian clarity and a Christian commitment even if they disagree with it. They do not want us to bend over backwards to accommodate every shade of opinion with some vague, eclectic mish-mash. The clarity of Islam challenges my Christian lack of clarity.

 

It’s not that I want to have everything carefully defined and in a water-tight box. But I find myself pushed to differentiate between those things I need to be very clear about, and that about which I need to remain open-ended.

 

 

THE UNITY OF FAITH AND ACTION

 

This time last year I was packing my bags for a week’s visit to Iran. It was a great privilege to be invited to speak at an Islamic conference in the beautiful city of Isfahan, south east of Teheran. Isfahan is famous for its superb turquoise domes within the enormous Town Square. Built in the early 17thC by Shah Abbas, when he relocated the capital to Isfahan.

 

That Square, now known as Imam Square, in honour of Ayatollah Khomeini, was originally known as Naghsh e Jahan (= Portrait of the World). The huge rectangular area of gardens, fountains and pathways is surrounded by a continuous line of buildings: largest of all, and dominating one end, is the Great Imam Mosque. On one side, a smaller mosque, and opposite it there is the Shah’s palace. And linking all three is the continuous intricate façade of the bazaar.

 

Here we see religious, political and commercial life holding hands; in bricks and mortar, we have an eloquent statement of the profound Islamic belief in the unity of praying and doing, of the spiritual and the physical. It is indeed a portrait of the interconnected world, as conceived by Islam.

 

Of course, Islam doesn’t have a monopoly on this way of seeing the world. It is very biblical. The Hebrew scriptures present a similarly holistic idea of body, mind and spirit, of the heavenly and the earthly. And Christianity, at its heart, agrees with this. But through the centuries we have been so deeply influenced by the early dualisms of Greek thinking and, more recently, the pervasive secularism which has relegated the ‘spiritual’ to a separate and largely irrelevant category. We have come through decades of theological dismantling, & we have tossed some babies out with the murky bath-water. But I feel heartened that through all this turmoil and change, we are now recovering the treasures of our faith in new and credible ways; we are reclaiming that profound sense of the divine presence within and between us; within all that we experience through our senses, our relationships, our thinking and our hoping.

 

For the devout Muslim, the phrase Insh’allah, is often added to a sentence – ‘God willing’. For him or her, God is involved in every aspect of life – there is no distinction between sacred & secular. And for us, having tossed out the bath water and recovered the baby, we are regaining a more wholistic sense of that divinity within the whole of life. A God no longer confined to the chapel or the upper stratosphere, but one who is present in the board-room and laboratory, the bed-room and the playground.

 

 

THE SHARING OF COMMON GROUND

 

The history of Christian-Muslim relationships through 1500 years is largely a sad story of competitiveness, suspicion and fear, with frequent episodes of violent confrontation. Day by day in the news we hear more and more of the same. The media seem to love to keep the fires burning in their choice of lead stories, and their placing of words in juxtaposition, like Islamist and Muslim, jihadist, militant, insurgent.

 

This continuous bombardment of negative images and word associations leads to deeply ingrained stereotypes. It becomes difficult for many of us to hear the world ‘Muslim’ without adding connotations of ‘fanaticism’ and ‘suicide bombing’. The same thing, of course is happening in the opposite direction.

 

While in Iran, I was subjected to many media interviews, and the dominant questions revealed some clear stereotyping of the West in general, and Christians in particular.

 

It was rather assumed that I was hand-in-glove with President Bush and his policies. For that is what the Christian West is like, according to the Iranian media machine – to say nothing of gross materialism and sexual perversion.

 

On both sides of the divide, there is the great temptation to compare the worst of the other side with the best of one’s own. Christianity is wonderful, because we are all about love and forgiveness, whereas Islam is dark and evil with its suppression of women & its cutting off of hands. From a biblical point of view we are in grave danger of breaking the 9th Commandment – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

 

Yet, in spite of all the agro between the two faiths, both today and in the past, there have been, and still are, some wonderful signs of hope. Where Muslim and Christian are willing to sit together, to speak and to listen with open hearts and minds, we find we have a great deal in common in our scriptures, in our basic beliefs and values, and in our hopes for the world we share.

 

I want to close by drawing to your attention a very recent document which, I believe, is a God-given opportunity to work together for a better future. It is entitled A Common Word between Us and You.

 

Some of you may already know of it – it can be accessed on a web-site of the same name. Just google A Common Word. The title comes from the third Sura (chapter) of the Holy Qur’an, where Muslims are exhorted to seek common ground with Christians and Jews. In this open letter, produced just last month, 138 Muslim leaders, scholars and theologians have called on the leaders of all the Christian churches to look closely at the heart of our faith and theirs.

 

In a careful examination of Qur’an and Bible, they show the centrality of the two great injunctions to love God and to love our fellow human beings. It is a plea that is both simple and profound, and all the more remarkable that it comes from such a diverse group of Muslims (both Sunni & Shi’a) and that it comes so graciously, at a time when Muslims in much of the world are feeling under siege from the West. Its opening paragraph says this: Muslims and Christians together make up well over half the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians

 

Today’s Bible readings present two visions of the future: Isaiah 65 describes a time to come when violence and injustice will end, when tears will be wiped away, and life will be lived in the fullness and the flourishing that God intended.

 

Luke 21 presents a very different prospect of turmoil and bloodshed, famines and persecution. We have choice about our future, like that which Joshua presented to the Children of Israel:

 

Today I place before you life or death;

Choose Life!

 

In the light of these starkly contrasting visions, I urge you to access and to read the Open Letter: A Common Word between us and You. And, having read it, to say, as we do so often in our liturgies, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

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