People of the Book

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Matt 5:44-45 

This is Jesus at His most radical and challenging.  It isn’t enough to love our neighbors as ourselves. We also have to love our enemies, those that actually seek to do us harm.  It is clearly only God’s job to figure out who is evil and who is good.  It is our job to be grateful to those we fear or hate because they are the ones who help us discover our bias and weakness.  If we strive to be perfect, this is how we’re going to get there. 

As far as our attitude to Muslims is concerned, we have a long way to go. 

I read a disturbing letter to the editor in the Toledo Blade.  It was in response to an column by a Toledo Muslim regarding the Christian myopia which seems to affect our foreign policy and re-enforce the notion that our Christian nation is really out to defeat Islam rather than just responding to attacks from bin Laden. 

There is a frightening ignorance in this country of Islam.  It is this ignorance which some politicians and fundamentalists have used to demonize all Muslims.  It is also this ignorance which causes fear in those who distrust what they don’t know.  This is just as wrong as when we try to blame illegal immigrants, African Americans, Japanese, Germans, Jews, or the Irish for all our problems. 

Islam is a beautiful religion of devotion and commitment.  If more Christians could get past their pride and self-righteousness, they would find this out on their own.  Islam means surrender.  Devout Muslims surrender their life to God in ways that Christians only imagine.  The daily prayer and prostration to Jerusalem is part of this process of demonstrating obedience as well as piety.  The only analogy I can come up with in Christianity is kneeling, but it is so much more than that.  I can tell you with no need to check the statistics, that there are way more Muslims on their knees in prayer every day than Christians, yet there is still the sense in this country that Muslims are primitive and violent. 

Much has been made of the position of women in some Muslim societies.  The reality is that both the Koran and the Bible have been used to subjugate women.  There are many Christian religions where women have an institutionalized subservient role.  There are also modern Muslim countries where women participate in all aspects of the economy in much the same ways as they do in this country.  I would submit that this is a cultural issue and not a religious one.   

Detroit has a large Muslim population.  Some cities and schools responding to that demand have added features to public facilities to wash hands and feet in preparation for prayer.  In my mind this is no different than adding changing tables or handicapped facilities to rest rooms.  It is the sort of loving response to individual needs that one would expect from a open free society.  It’s also a practical solution to the challenges posed by Muslims trying to use public sinks for this purpose.  Instead conservatives have latched onto this as just another example of soft-headed liberalism.  The thought goes, “How can we be accommodating Muslims in this country when we are waging a war against them in the Middle East?” or “Why are we spending money to make it easier for Muslims to pray when we can’t spend money to support Christian prayer in public schools?”

The Koran, on the other hand, teaches tolerance and respect for all of the world’s religions.  That respect includes prohibiting evangelizing those who already have committed to another religion.  Those that come to Islam, have to come of their own free will.  The Koran has a wonderful term for Jews and Christians.  We are “People of the Book”.  They have much more respect for the Bible than we do the Koran.  They view us brothers and sisters because we have the same father.  

Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way — except in the case of those of them who do wrong — saying, “We have faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him” (29:46).

The Koran also counsels against aggression of any sort.  Muslims are instructed to strike only after they have been struck.  Only when they are so threatened that their life may be at risk do they have the choice of being aggressive.  Then they are encouraged to fight whole heartedly.  When the opponent surrenders, however, Muslims are obliged to accept whatever terms are offered without negotiation, embrace their enemy, and seek as quickly as possible a return to peaceful existence. 

These basic Muslim teachings have obviously been perverted by fundamentalism.  So has Christianity.  All of the worlds great religions grew in response to violence and found their voice in offering people an alternative to the endless cycle of revenge and retaliation.  It was their intent to remove violence from society.  Fundamentalism, however, seeks to distort these teachings and divides the world between believers and non-believers.  This view justifies violence in the misguided cause of defending the faith.   

Just as no one person speaks for all Christians, no one person speaks for all Muslims.  One of the common myths is that Muslims have not condemned the excesses of extremism in their religion.  Just as Christian leaders have condemned violence at abortion clinics and gay bars, muslim leaders around the world have condemned the violence directed at the United Stated by bin Laden inspired forces.  

The sooner that we condemn this notion that we are engaged in a conflict between good and evil or Christianity and Islam, the sooner that we will be able to embrace the notion that the Koran and the Bible provide all of the guidance we need to solve this conflict.  All we are lacking is leaders with the humility and obedience to actually follow the teachings in the books they claim to defend.   

It may well be that God will restore the love between you and those of them who are now your enemies. God is All-Powerful. God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful (60:7).

4 Responses to “People of the Book”

  1. John Piippo says:

    Hi Jeff – you write: “I can tell you with no need to check the statistics, that there are way more Muslims on their knees in prayer every day than Christians.” I doubt that is true. Or, at least, it’s the kind of thing one would want statistics for.

    For example, my son lived and worked in Istanbul for two years, a city of sixteen million people, 95% of whom are Muslims. And, I visited there for 10 days. Dan would tell you, and I saw this with my own eyes, that when the call to prayer came over the loudspeakers NO ONE was stopping to pray. Hardly anyone does this in Istanbul, especialily young people.

    I have a friend who live in Dearborn and lives in a Muslim neighborhood. There’s not a lot of prayer happening there, most especially among the younger people who are becoming Americanized..

    On the other hand, the research of Penn State U scholar Philip Jenkins shows that in China and on the African continent and in Latin and South America Christianity is exploding. E.g., I teach at the largest China church in NYC. The stories coming out of the underground church in China are amazing. I have seen video clip of thousands of Christians praying. I may have the opportunity to visit a church in China that has 400,000 people in it. It’s a “cell church,” and meets “underground” (= it’s not registered with the government). Jenkins’s book The Next Christendom, + his recent writings, attest to and give the statistics and date for the exploding church in these countries.

    I have also met with a number of Muslim young adults and talked with them. They are not very serious about their Islam. Why? Because the more a Muslim becomes westernized, the more they leave the 5 Pillars of Islam. Thus the greatest fear among devout Muslims is not Christianity, but Western values.

    So I think it is probably not true, and definitely not obvious, that Muslims pray more than Christians, globally. And here in America the Americanization of Islam is eroding devout Islam. Just as it has real Christianity.

    Blessings to you,

    John Piippo

  2. Jeff Beamsley says:

    John,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I think that we are basically agreeing that the rewards of capitalism tend dilute fundamentalism, whether it is Christian or Muslim. The more people who recognize that most Muslims are eager to enjoy the material comforts available in countries like the US, the less we’ll see Muslims in general as the enemy. The sooner we admit that radical Islamists are much more concerned about MTV than Billy Graham, the sooner we will develop effective strategies for blunting their hateful ideology.

    My quick calculation regarding prayer was pretty simple. There are 2.1B Christians in the world and 1.5B Muslims. If we assume an equal percentage are devout (whatever that may be), but in the case of Muslims that devotion includes praying on your knees five times a day, while in the case of Christians it may only be once or twice a day – QED – there are way more Muslims on their knees than Christians.

    There are actually some statistics which suggest that as a percentage, there are more devout Muslims than Christians, but it wasn’t particularly important in this exercise head down that road. All I was trying to point out is that as part of their practice, Muslims take humble prayer very seriously. Anyone who has spent any time in quiet prayer shares a common experience with anyone else who has done the same thing, regardless of their religion. All those of faith should be able to draw on that common experience as a starting point for fellowship. Also, if you believe that God directs the paths of those who seek Him in prayer, then you have to also believe that God is directing the paths of the Muslims as well as the Christians.

    It is exciting to hear of Christianity taking hold in developing countries. China is going through a huge transformation right now so they are going to need spiritual guidance to navigate through these waters.

    Great to hear from you. Please continue to share your thoughts.

    Jeff

  3. John Piippo says:

    Hi Jeff:

    You write: “My quick calculation regarding prayer was pretty simple. There are 2.1B Christians in the world and 1.5B Muslims. If we assume an equal percentage are devout (whatever that may be), but in the case of Muslims that devotion includes praying on your knees five times a day, while in the case of Christians it may only be once or twice a day – QED – there are way more Muslims on their knees than Christians.”

    But you can’t make a sheer logical argument for the claim “there are way more Muslims on their knees than Christians.”

    And, anyway, your reasoning is not logical. Here’s why. If one Muslim prays 5 times a day on his or her knees, and one Christian prays today for any amount of time (1 minute or 10 hours), then we have exactly 5wo praying people; i.e., one Muslim praying and one Christian praying. We do not, logically, have “more” Muslims praying than Christians. So the logic does not work here.

    The claim you are making, that there are “way more” Muslims praying could only be verified empirically (not logically), which would be a phenomenally difficult thing, I think, to prove. Socio-cultural things would come into play, logical-linguistic things re. the meanings of terms which are vague (“devout”), issues of how much time in prayer is needed to be “devout,” matters of the heart vs. mechanical “praying,” and so on.

    I have taught courses on prayer at four theological seminaries for the past – in Singapore, NYC, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and also in India, and have taught students from all over the globe. I am very much aware of large groups of Christians who pray, literally, for many, many hours every day and sometimes for days at a time.

    So your claim “there are way more Muslims on their knees than Christians” has yet to be demonstrated. I doubt that such a claim is true. In that way I think it is misleading.

    Blessings again,

    John

  4. Jeff Beamsley says:

    John,

    The whole point of the comment was to support the claim that Christians don’t have a monoply on prayer or devotion. I admit to a clumbsy bit of table napkin figuring figure of speach to make the point.

    If you’re willing to agree that Christians should respect the prayerful nature of Islam, we can stop trying to determine how many knees fit on the head of a pin. -g-

    Your background sounds facinating.

    Though it is a completely different topic, I think it would be interesting to better understand how different faith traditions regard the act of prayer.

    My wife is a Buddhist, so I am familiar with their chants and sitting. I’m also familiar with some eastern meditation techniques which include repetition of a word or sound. I’m curious if there is any analog to the deep contemplative prayer that we read about in Christian history and literature?

    Jeff

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