Dinner with a Muslim Sheikh
The following piece was originally published at Off the Page as part of a series called "Loving our Muslim Neighbors: Soft Power, Strongly Applied."
In January 2012, on an otherwise normal Friday night, I found myself in old-world Arabia—on the peninsula that gave birth to Islam. Somewhere in a neighborhood in Muscat, Oman, I was sitting cross-legged in a circle beside a Muslim professor of Sharia. As fate would have it, this was a long, long way from the rural Ohio of my conservative Baptist youth, where even interactions with non-“born again” Catholics were severely frowned upon.
In the sheikh’s simple, unadorned majlis (“sitting room”), our travel-study cohort enjoyed a variety of fruit, including Omani dates paired with a delicious sesame dipping butter. Everything was prepared by the sheikh’s generous wife, whom, according to social convention, we never saw.
Over the literal sit-down meal the sheikh and I fell into a surprisingly open conversation about the post-Resurrection ascension of Jesus. Among the surprises (imagine my surprise), I watched the sheikh excitedly hop up from our conversation circle, rush over to his bookshelf, grab his Arabic-language Bible, and turn to the end of Mark’s gospel.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the British scholar Hugh Goddard summarized the history of Christian-Muslim relations as both textured and tortured. Mix in the contemporary conditions affecting the atmosphere—global urgencies, including Islamic extremism on many fronts and political instability in Muslim-majority countries; stubborn inter-religious ignorance; and growing cultural fears, especially in the United States and in the West. The barriers and divisions between Christians and Muslims are undeniably formidable.
Perhaps against the odds, then, there I was in the sheikh’s sitting room, sharing a meal and discussing that famous person of interest, Jesus—of whom Pope John Paul II once said, “He is the answer to the question that is every human being.” You and me and sheikhs, not exempted.
How an American evangelical from the US heartland became at ease around a Muslim professor of Sharia in the Arab heartland is, well, a very long story, years in the making and still ongoing. At the end of the day, this blog series is a warm invitation into exactly this sort of story—and many others. Consider it a beginning pilgrimage as we aspire to love Muslims for the honor of Jesus and for the good of the world.
My hope is—quite frankly—that we can move beyond our shock-and-awe responses to the violence of the Islamic State (ISIS) or Boko Haram. That we can move beyond our polemics-as-usual or fearful ignorance. That we can move toward Christian faithfulness, wisdom, and courage as we interact with—and love—the religious neighbor who has become, for all intents and purposes, a new kind of Samaritan.
Yes, it is true: politics often screams louder than love. And the “culture wars” mentality among some Christians can distract from the priority of love. But it is precisely for these reasons that the stories, questions, and reflections explored throughout this series will be the ones most shaped by the influential culture of American evangelicalism—where some of us reside, by heritage or choice.
In his book American Christians and Islam, Baylor University historian Thomas S. Kidd argues that “we can see that much of the recent American Christian hostility toward Islam derives from a long historical tradition,” notwithstanding the intensification since 9/11. “American Christians,” Kidd writes, “have often [categorized] and stereotyped Muslims out of pain, anger, and fear.”
Of course, deconstructing theological, political, or cultural fears regarding Islam and Muslims is a complex endeavor. John W. Morehead of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy admits, “Conspiratorial and simplistic views of Islam…are symptoms of something bigger. Evangelicals not only have a credibility problem when it comes to engaging Islam…but they are also ill prepared for America’s increasing religious pluralism in the public square.”
“How can we move forward in ways that are faithful to our religious convictions?” Morehead asks. I genuinely believe there are several, pertinent ways to move forward—and these ways will, I hope, become clear and tangible (believable and feasible) throughout the series.
We cannot fear what we have chosen to love.
As a Jesus-follower, it is still my unwavering contention that Christians cannot fear what we have chosen to love. Christian love is, in essence, soft power, strongly applied. Ultimately there is nothing weak or passive about it.
Faithful, wise, and courageous engagement with Islam and with Muslims means many things. But it will mean nothing at all if Christians scoff in the face of love’s abiding virtue and unique power. In describing the possible bristling or wrestling of some Christians when it comes to engaging Muslims, the theologian A. Christian van Gorder writes, “Truth matters; differences are undeniable. This, however, cannot be the final word in matters of multi-faith engagement.”
Indeed. Not if we’re going to make it over to the sheikh’s house in time for dinner.