July 28, 2015
BEIRUT: It was the first day of Ramadan*, and a veiled Sunni woman smiled affectionately at her husband from her front row seat in a crowded room. He was wrapping up a panel discussion with Christian leaders, and he had one more statement to offer the crowd: “When there is violence, all lose. Violence is not the option. Knowing each other better is the option.” A few minutes later, the couple began their long commute to the other side of Beirut, ready to feast with their family after the first day of annual fasting that characterizes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The event organizers had adjusted the conference schedule to make sure they could get back home before sunset, wanting to show respect and understanding to the day’s honored guests.
The panel discussion was part of the Middle East Consultation (MEC), hosted each summer by the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. This year, the topic was Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa, which was especially relevant in light of the unprecedented spread of the Gospel in the Arab world at this time and the questions and challenges local churches are wrestling with as a result. An additional purpose of the consultation each year is to provide an opportunity for “interfaith dialogue” as the gathering of Christ-followers welcomes and interacts with representative leaders of the Muslim community.
An interfaith panel discussion takes place at the 2015 Middle East Consultation (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
In essence, these conversations are an intentional cultivation of friendship and a search for common ground. While neither Muslim nor Christian participants in the conversation are interested in theological compromise with the other, they also recognize that doctrinal agreement isn’t necessary to approach each other as neighbors and friends. So why do they gather at all? If their goals are not to convert each other, what are they?
When Christians and Muslims enter into dialogues like those that take place at the MEC each year, they come as peacemakers, whom Jesus referred to as “blessed.” They offer simple demonstrations of love to their neighbors, as Jesus commanded. One of the first steps in making peace, as well as in showing love, happens when we choose to listen and desire to understand. This posture is a basic expression of the “golden rule” commanded by Jesus. We hear our Muslim neighbors as we want to be heard, without rushing to accuse or only looking for evidence that supports our previously-established suspicions.
IMES Director Martin Accad reminded participants during a workshop offered at the Middle East Consultation, “Your view of Islam will affect your attitude towards Muslims. This attitude will guide your approach as you relate to them. And your approach will determine the outcome of your ministry among Muslim peoples.” The approach he recommends, while “Christ-centered” and “ready to share the hope” we have as followers of Jesus, is also characterized by “love and respect for Muslims” and a choice to “refrain from conflict between religions.”
Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral and Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque lit up side by side at nighttime in Beirut (Photo: Wissam al-Saliby)
Interfaith conversations don’t take place unless there is first an underlying assumption. These dialogues can only grow out of an expectation that, when listening to and interacting with someone of another religion (Islam, in this case), we will not find an enemy, but a friend. This statement is sometimes hard for Christians to believe. “But don’t Muslims hate Christians?”, they might wonder. “Don’t they see us as infidels? Don’t they all want jihad** against us?”
It is this perspective that the two prominent Muslim religious leaders who joined the MEC panel discussions, one a Shi’ite leader and one a Sunni judge, hoped to have the opportunity to correct. Both men, on two separate nights and taking part in different panel discussions, made the point that moderate Muslims are seldom given a voice in the media. Both emphasized that violent expressions of Islam, led by those they describe as fanatics, are “the minority of the minority.” Those who spread and express Islam through violent oppression are applying an interpretation of the Quran that these leaders do not feel is faithful to their holy book, or to the life and teachings of Muhammad.
Additionally, the Sunni judge who participated in the panel has published a book seeking to help Muslims understand Americans accurately, despite the common stereotypes and assumptions made by Muslims about the moral degradation of the Christian West. As the Christians in attendance listened to his explanation of the various interpretations of “Shari’a” (Islamic Law), they were offering the same courtesy to Muslims that this judge seeks to encourage toward the West from within his own community.
What could happen if more Muslims and Christians sought to abandon inaccurate generalizations and truly know each other as neighbors and friends? The Shi’ite leader expressed the Muslim ideal, as he interprets Islam, of how people from other religious groups should be treated. He offered this exhortation to those listening to the MEC panel discussion: “We need to treat people as human beings, as sons of Adam, before they are affiliated with religious groups.”
To read more from the Institute of Middle East Studies, please visit their regularly-updated blog: https://imeslebanon.wordpress.com
*Ramadan is a month of fasting observed by Muslims around the world as a celebration of the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. Participation in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are foundational obligations for all faithful Muslims. Typically, the fast is from both food and water during hours of sunlight, and the fast is broken at sundown each evening with a special meal called an “iftar.” Ramadan creates an anticipated, family-centered atmosphere much like the holiday season consisting of Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S.
** “Jihad” is usually understood as “holy war,” especially by Westerners after 9/11.