Jesus and Islam(s)

 Read this book: God is not One, by Stephen Prothero, Boston University Professor of Religion.

Bonus: To warm you up on the reality of living as a Muslim in the United States, watch this video.

Now let’s get to it…

What do you hear people thinking and talking about when the subject of Islam or Muslims come up?

ISIS? Muhammed? Middle East? Terrorism? Beheadings? Mosques? Medina? Mecca? Jihad? Suicide Bombers? Peace? Law? Quran? Prayer? Poetry?

What countries of the world do you think have the highest population of Muslims?

Here’s what I hope to do with this teaching: lay out the facts about Islam and its adherents, and talk about what it means to follow Jesus in a world of people following a variety of religious traditions. You need to know my bias going forward. First, I like to know as much as possible about a subject or issue before I make conclusions. I am generally leery of sources that appear to be one sided based on the rhetoric used. When I view sources that are strewn with overly negative, hateful rhetoric, I get distracted and don’t really want to read what they have to say. What I try to do is take their obvious bias into consideration as I consider their perspective. Second, as a rule, I see religions themselves as largely human constructions created to help us get our arms around the Divine. The religions exist, in part, because they have been (more or less) effective at helping people do just that. In my opinion, a danger exists when we assume one particular religion is so divinely infused that it is beyond critical evaluation, and the human influence is discounted. Finally, my study and experience leads me to believe that the core character trait of God is love, and the primary objective of God’s Spirit is ongoing, ever-increasing shalom (or salaam, in this case).

Islam 101. The word Islam means “submission” or “surrender”. Muslims – submitters/surrenderers – physically illustrate this in their daily prayers, where they prostrate themselves in prayer. A Masjid, which translates into “Mosque”, is literally “a place for prostration.” Five times a day, 365 days a year, for over a millennium, Muslims have stopped what they were doing in order to pray. Typically, the call to prayer comes in Arabic, the holy language in which the Quran was given to Muhammad. Most of the world’s Muslims live in Asia. Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country – three times the number than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined! India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh round out the top four. Of the top ten countries with the largest Muslim populations, only two are in the Middle East: Egypt and Iran. Three more are African: Nigeria, Algeria, and Morocco. Turkey is the remaining top ten country, which straddles Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It is estimated that 20% of the slaves brought into the United States were Muslim, but the religion gained visibility through the Nation of Islam, which recruited Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. Most Muslims in the United States are mainstream Sunnis. During prayer you will hear repeatedly Allahu Akbar: God is great. Unlike Christianity, which tries to solve the sin problem, Islam is trying to solve the self-sufficiency problem. The five pillars of Islam seek to do just that. These five pillars include Shahadah (Profession of Faith), Salat (Prayer), Zakat (Charity), Sawm (Fasting), and Hajj (Pilgrimage). Ramadan is a holiday which commemorates the coming of revelation to Muhammad. Jihad literally translates as “struggle,” referring most often to spiritual struggle against pride and self-sufficiency, and the physical struggle against the house of war. For Muslims, Allah (the God) is one. They do not believe in the Trinity or in an incarnation like Jesus. Muhammad was sort of like Jesus and Paul put together – he communicated the beliefs and also gave instructions on how to carry out the beliefs. Muslims revere him as a religious teacher, a social reformer, a moral guide, a political thinker, a military genius, and administrative colossus, a faithful friend, a wonderful companion, a devoted husband, a loving father – all in one. When I read this, it made me think of King David. He was the most loved king of Israel, certainly revered, but also had skeletons in his closet. Yet, even though Muhammad is revered, he is not viewed as God. Jesus and Muhammad do not play the same role in their respective faiths. Muhammad was not considered divine – only the Quran is. So, with that in mind, think of it this way: Jesus is to the Quran as Muhammad is to the Bible. Muhammad received revelations from 610-632 CE, and founded the Muslim community in 622 as they fled Mecca, landing in Medina. This emigration is known as the hijra, and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. In 632, upon Muhammad’s death, Islam split into two main branches, Sunni and Shia. Sunnis value tradition and the community in shaping understanding of the Quran and Hadith (writings about what it means to live as a Muslim). Shia are a much smaller group, and are looking for their caliph to lead them. Sufis are Muslim mystics, and are on the side of love and reconciliation. There is much more to say, but this gives a general overview of the faith.

Backgammon or Baseball? One very helpful metaphor that may be helpful in sorting this out is a sports analogy. Choosing from basketball, football, baseball, and hockey, which sport scores the most runs? The answer, of course, is baseball. The term doesn’t even fit the other sports. Similarly, different religions are playing different “games”, even though they are all “sports”. They score differently, and have different rules of play. You cannot really call one better than another, either, because they cannot really be compared. I found that to be very insightful and helpful. To try and deem one religion “better” is in some ways an exercise in futility. In this sense, we can call them all religions, but let’s stop trying to make them say the same thing, because they aren’t. Islam is a system of faith and government, more like Judaism than Christianity (which is more focused on salvation from sin). The question turns to getting along more than getting them to agree.

Jesus and Islams. Now you know why I “pluralized” the Muslim’s faith to “Islams”. The understood beliefs, practices, tone, hope, and agenda of Islam depends on which part of the world you are in and the voice of interpretation being listened to. The exact same thing could be said of Christianity today, which reminds us to be aware and appreciative of the complexity of religion in general, and Islam specifically. For people who follow Jesus, we have a responsibility to learn and understand his ways and match our hands, feet, head and heart to his. To fully grasp what Jesus believed and lived we need to ask a couple of questions: What shaped Jesus’ worldview related to other religious traditions? How did he actually respond to people of other religious traditions – what did he say, how did he treat them, and what did he teach? How did the leaders of early Jesus followers move forward in a time that was so hostile toward them?

The Jewish tradition, like all other religious traditions, is multifaceted. At the time when Jesus lived and breathed there was not just one way to think and live “Jewishly”, but several. Like Islam, the Jewish faith practiced was largely influenced by the same factors: zip code, school of thought, and time in history. There is not one, singular voice or tradition that shaped Jesus or his contemporaries. This is why the stories of Jesus include really ugly accounts of Jesus mixing it up with religious leaders. And I mean ugly! The most colorful account can be found in the Bible’s book of Matthew Chapter 23, which reads like it could have been lifted right out of today’s campaign trail. Remember that he was not speaking as a Christian against Jews. He was speaking as a Jew to Jewish leaders. Think Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Independents and Green Party people in the same room talking politics. That’s what we have here. The major theological voices at that time came from the Sadducees (who were small but held the power in Jerusalem), the Pharisees (who were the largest group mostly comprised of people outside of the big cities), the Zealots (who were on the fringe, ready to violently revolt if necessary), and the Essenes (who were separatists who thought they practiced the pure faith). Sadducees were more likely to be gracious toward other traditions because they were interested in keeping peace with Rome. Pharisees and Zealots were likely less gracious because they were living with the harsh reality of being in Roman-occupied Israel – they were the regular, everyday folks who were barely making it already, only to have Rome demand more from them. The Zealots were on the terrorist watch lists at the time, and were looking for the right window to overthrow Rome. They no doubt were involved in the retaking of Jerusalem in 65 AD or so, and watch everything fall apart as Rome starved them out, tortured their family members who were released right outside the gate, and eventually wiped them and the entire city out in 70 AD. The Essenes were the Amish, so to speak – they wanted to be left in their own space to practice what they deemed was the pure faith. Those are the voices that shaped Jesus. The strongest voices would have been from the Pharisee, Zealot, and separatist camps. Note: even though the Matthew texts indicate Jesus was attacking Pharisees, the more likely target was Sadducees. By the end of the first century, however, very few people knew much about the Sadducees because they got wiped out along with the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, was well aware of them, their lust for luxury and power, and their arrogance. Jesus was influenced by all of these voices in one way or another, and to different degrees. Growing up in Galilee, the Pharisees and Zealots would have had particular influence.

Jesus gave us plenty of material for us to use to help discern his approach to other religious traditions. Here are a few that I think are noteworthy:

The Woman at the Well (John 4). She was a Samaritan – they were as Dodgers to Giants fans – utterly incapable of anything good. Jesus opened the conversation, treated her with tremendous dignity as respect.
Crazy Cemetery Dude (Luke 8:26ff). In this scene, Jesus has some fun teaching some pigs to swim(!), and shows healing grace to a very troubled man.
“For us isn’t against us” (Mark 9:38). In this brief exchange, Jesus makes an interesting statement that those who are essentially with him in their pursuits of healing are, well, with him. Not enemies.
Crumbs from the table (Mt. 15:21-28). In this bazaar scene, Jesus seems to be a jerk – and might be – but in the end grants the Gentile’s wish.
In my opinion, while Jesus was clearly Jewish and promoted Judaism, when it came to other religious traditions – even those that were clear enemies – Jesus treated other people with dignity and grace.

What about Jesus’ followers? They also gave us plenty to work with. Recall that they were barely recognized as a Jewish sect – they were not a major player for 300 years. The underdog. They were trying to make their case to Jewish adherents while at the same time discerning the essence of their faith as they found themselves in increasingly non-Jewish territory. Their capacity to be open and graceful to people of other faiths is amazing and inspiring. Philip gracefully engaged the Ethiopian Eunuch. Peter ended up baptizing Cornelius’ household. Paul converted to following Jesus after a season of pursuing his disciples. Later, in part because of what they were seeing develop right before their eyes, out of all of the Jewish laws prescribed, only two were deemed critical to follow. The followers of Jesus didn’t pretend to think they were the same as the others. Hardly! But they did know that their only hope of (1) survival was dependent on being respectful of the traditions all around them, and (2) their only hope of dialogue about faith depended on showing grace and openness to conversation. It is important to remember, again, that the Bible’s last chapter was written toward the end of the first Century – 200+ years before Christianity would become a global player from riding on the coattails of the Roman Empire.

How do we proceed today? First, let’s talk about ways that I think will not work, and will make things worse. Extreme Fundamentalists of every religion are certain that they are right and on the side of God. Their approach will always be combative, and may even lead to a holy war based on their narrow interpretation of their particular scriptures. This is certainly the case in Islam and Christianity. Because Islam does not separate church and state like the US, Christian Fundamentalists can easily justify – in extreme, anyway – the use of military against those countries without losing much sleep. This is why, after 9/11, some extremely conservative Christian preachers unapologetically encouraged nuking some choice Middle Eastern countries. It is why some conservative Christians cheer when the idea of carpet-bombing ISIS and other terrorist groups is recommended by political hopefuls. Violence begets violence. Such an approach will only lead to more terrorism, and closer to home. I cannot imagine the Jesus we try to follow ever being so callous, so heartless, as to promote that kind of aggression.

Secondly, I think that minimizing differences between religions – even as an attempt to build bridges of peace – is actually offensive to faithful followers accidentally. I used to espouse this view. It seemed like the noble way to simply encourage people that all religions are just different expressions about the same God, sort of like the Elephant analogy where blind men are feeling different parts of the same animal, but calling them all by very different names. Or that they are all attempts to get up the same mountain. The problem is that each may be climbing a mountain, but not necessarily the same mountain. The vista is going to be quite different depending on which peak is ascended. Religions do not say the same things about God or how to live in faith. The various religions have their practices to accomplish the distinctive goals of each religion. To gloss over too much fails to appreciate those differences, which will (absolutely) become a source of conflict eventually.

In my view, religions themselves are attempts to make sense of the world and how to live. They each have their take on reality, on God, and on ethics. So, while I cannot believe that they say the same things about God in their respective theologies, I do believe that their goal of making sense of the world and the divine is shared. Mystics from every tradition who seek the divine presence here and now do say with one accord that this entity we call God is experienced as loving. That’s hopeful. Respecting other traditions is what resonates with me. When I learn more about other traditions as well as my own, I show respect to people of other faith traditions. To not learn and assume they are after the same thing I am sets us against each other: which religion is better? Islam is playing Cricket, however, while we’re playing baseball. They sort of look the same, but they are simply different. Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core run by Eboo Patel discourage the youth from trying to resolve their difference faith traditions. Instead, the youth are directed toward serving others. Because the focus is on service, the students get along fine. I wonder if there might be a model there for the world to try and follow…

As for Fundamentalists who only see their way as THE WAY, they must be held in check when their beliefs turn violent. ISIS and terrorism in general has been condemned by mainstream Muslims. And Muslims are the primary ones trying to defeat Muslim terrorist groups. Holding the ethical line while trying to attack ignorance is probably our only hope to manage it. Fundamentalism will not go away, ever, and therefore must simply be managed. Personally, I believe a reason why religious Fundamentalism is so attractive is simply because it allows people to feel empowered and blessed by the Divine and allows them to in one way or another hold power over others. All with God’s blessing. It is rooted in a self-absorbed worldview and upon a weak sense of self. Collectively, then, nations around the world need to come together in service to hold terrorism at bay and keep fundamentalism in check when it victimizes others. That means the military will be involved. On our soil, I think we need to protect people and groups of people who are in harm’s way while denouncing hate in whatever form it comes, even if that speech is coming from our next president. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about speaking about others in ways that promote mutual respect. That’s just my opinion. But I think this way reflects Jesus’ Way more than hate speak.

I am reminded once again of David’s Psalm 19, which indicates his awareness of the majesty of God and his subsequent smallness. In light of all he could not possibly know, he responded with humility in his concluding prayer:

May the words of our mouths

and the meditations of our hearts

be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer.