Yesterday I and two of my MCCC students were hosted at the Islamic Center of America (ICA) in Dearborn by Eide Alawan. Mr. Alawan is the liaison to Imam Qazwini, and director of the Office of Interfaith Outreach. Mr. Alawan graciously gave us almost two hours of his time. For me, and for my students, it was a great learning experience.
We were graciously greeted by the women office managers with coffee and "breakfast bread," which was in the shape of pita bread and freshly baked, using a "secret recipe." These delicious breads can be bought at ICA.
Mr. Alawan is a very fit 69-year-old Muslim of Syrian origin. He is quite a scholar, both gentle and passionate, and an incredible host. He toured us around ICA, always explaining things and sharing his personal insights on what was going on there, accompanied by sharing his Muslim faith.
The highlight for me was when we joined 300-400 mostly Shia Muslims in the large, circular prayer room (which can hold 700-800). Men were in the front of the room praying, kneeling in rows as a sign of unity. Women were in the back of the room. Mr. Alawan told us that it is this way so that the men will not be distracted by the women and will instead concentrate on Allah.
The meeting began with a muezzin leading the people in the call to prayer. Then Imam Qazwini taught a lesson on helping orphans, being humble, and the need for parents to teach their children about Islam. The Imam's message was spoken first in Arabic, then in English. He encouraged the people to deeply study the Quran because, as he sees things, many say they follow the Quran but really do not follow it because they do not deeply know it. As he was speaking this reminded me of what arguably could be the majority of "Christians" in America who not only do not understand the Bible but also do not follow it. This, in my mind, leads to many varieties of "folk Christianity" that are far removed from the real thing, The Imam was calling for "deep Quran literacy" as I am calling for "deep Bible literacy." Imam Qazwini is a relatively young Muslim leader and, I think, a compelling spokesperson for Islam. He regularly meets with world presidents and leaders and has recently published his book American Crescent, which I purchased at ICA's bookstore (which is next to their coffee shop).
Mr. Alawan is a national leader in the effort to promote interfaith understanding and dialogue. In listening to him talk I saw the face of Islam that wants to understand Jews and Christians. And, an Islam that is non-violent and non-terrorist. When I asked Mr. Alawan what he thought of the Islam of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden he expressed his strong belief that that is not real Islam.
As we said good-bye he told me that he and his wife would like to take Linda and I out to dinner to share some very good food. If that happens I am certain we will be very glad to do that.
What do I make of all of this? Here are my immediate thoughts.
- In order to dialogue with Islam and present Jesus to Muslims I must understand Islam.
- I am aware of the debate over whether or not Islam is intrinsically violent.
- I find myself wondering if Mr. Alawan and Imam Qazwini interpret portions of the Quran correctly. I know this is audacious of me to say, since they are both great Quran scholars, especially the Imam. For example, Imam Qazwini writes: "The Qu'ran also speaks of infidels, but in very specific terms. "Infidel" does not refer to just any Christian or Jew but to someone who aims to harm or kill Muslims for practiocing their faith." (American Crescent, 230-231) The Imam expands a bit more on this. Mr. Alawan shared this with us yesterday. I found myself thinking that I know too much about textual interpretation to simply accept this. Such an interpretation would certainly fit well with a moderate, peaceful Islam. I am personally grateful for this approach but wonder if it can be textually supported. An analogy for me might be this: I might want universalism ("all will be saved") to be true but feel certain that this cannot be textually supported in the Christian Scriptures. So, e.g., when someone like John Hick argues for it I cannot refer to hjis argument as a particularly "Christian" one. A whole lot of hermeneutical maneuvering has to take place to get to such a position.
- On Interfaith Dialogue I have been involved in this, in some way, for most of my Christian life. The question about the "other" religions inevitably comes up for all who follow Jesus deeply, and is dealt with in a variety of ways. Some of us have chosen to study and understnad those other religions, on the idea that we cannot meanignfully speak with them if we do not have a clue about who they are and what they believe. As a campus pastor at Michigan State University and part of the Religious Advisors organization we were always discussion interfaith and inter-denominational issues. At times I felt the only things we could all agree on were: 1) we were against alcoholism on campus; and 2) apple pie is a very good thing. When I dialogued in Rocket Hall at the University of Toledo with the Imam of Northern Ohio a few years ago he said to me, in front of the students who were there, "I think you and I are really talking about the same thing." But surely we are not, especially at some very key points. In fact, to be told that we are really talking about the same thing is an insult to me. I don't hate the Imam for saying this, but I do feel insulted that he would say say this. If he really believes that then he is ignorant of what I believe. The Quranic teaching is that Christ was not crucified nor killed by the Jews. But this is not only something I believe, but is the very beating heart of what I believe. If you take this away from me you have taken away my entire faith. Real interfaith dialogue openly acknowledges real, crucial differences and does not try to find some more basic ontological ground where we are all saying the same thing.
- Mr. Alawan does not view Islam as evangelistic or wanting to convert people of other faiths to Islam. I am not certain about this. While I can believe that ICA's philosophy is non-evangelistic, I just do not know about other versions of Islam. Perhaps Imam Qazwini is bringing in a kind of Islam that will be embracing of Jews and Christians and other faiths, and this is why Rolling Stone magazine reviewed Imam Qazwini's book by referring to him as "typical of a new breed of Muslim leader in the United States."
- For me, authentic interfaith dialogue would acknowledge my commitment to the real Jesus who commands me to "make disciples of all nations." Again, one problem with interfaith dialogue is that it has a tendency to seek some universal common ground that we can all stand on, like "apple pie is very good." (A more intellectual example would be Tillich's God as the "ground of being.") For me, less and less am I trying to "convert" someone, since that implies that "I" am the "converter." As I witness to Christ in me, by word and in service and power, I am trusting God to be the Great Convincer. And again, and but of course, this implies that I think I am correct about this, and that the Quran is wrong when it comes to Jesus. Interfaith dialoguers need not be threatened by this, since we will all feel the other religions are wrong about some things.
- I am to love a Muslim such as Eide Alawan. I admit that I like him. I think I can love him, and I think I already do. Perhaps he will become a friend. I do not think he is my enemy, because my biblical understanding is that people are not the real adversary anyway. The shocking Jesus-perspective is that, even if he were my enemy, I am called to love him. Perhaps we will become friends, and Linda and I will love Eide and his wife around the dinner table, and we will have the chance to share with them the Jesus who has rescued us just as he shared his love for Islam with me. What are the possibilities here?