How should Christians relate to Muslims? Are they a problem, unwelcome, a threat? Recently there has been a lot of interest in, and disapproval of halal slaughter. We also learnt that the broadcast of the call to prayer in Channel 4’s Ramadan Season last year received more complaints than anything else aired by the broadcaster. Meanwhile Britain First – a “patriotic political party and street defence organisation” – has been entering mosques with their shoes on, giving Bibles to worshippers, and a Presbyterian pastor has denounced Islam from the pulpit. Internationally, we have heard worse things of women being killed and another being sentenced to death.
I admit to being particularly attuned to it, but Muslims are rarely out of the media. Sometimes I am asked, ‘How should Christians relate to Muslims?’ Many have already made up their minds. In some ways the question is new, but it is also very old. We don’t have far to look to find a ‘Saracen’s Head’ pub (Saracen = Muslim) or organisations called ‘Crusaders’. Historical tension and animosity between Christians and Muslims is woven into our culture. In the present, we encounter many negative stories and impressions of Muslims in the media, whether it is, so called, ‘Islamist terrorists’ or a Muslim ‘Trojan Horse’ takeover of schools.
Many people have a negative perception of Muslims because of media coverage, so that if you ask them who Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram are they say Muslim, rather than terrorist. Channel 4 sought to challenge the negativity with its Ramadan Season but was then accused of “imposing Islam”, or not giving an honest picture.
For the Christian perhaps, there are more important theological or religious questions about Islam: how can we relate positively to a faith which explicitly denies the central tenets of Christianity? How do we navigate these difficult questions, especially where minds are already made up?
There are clues in our past, both Christian and Islamic. One ancient story is that of St Francis of Assisi who, in the middle of war, when a city was being seized, went out to the Caliph’s camp and engaged in dialogue with the leader of the Muslim army (this was in the days when both Christianity – Christendom – and Islam were geopolitical entities). Francis entered, held deep discussions and left in peace. He did not persuade his dialogue partners, but there was mutual respect and listening (just as Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman that no one else would have spoken to).
At another time of great difficulty, when believers were being persecuted for their faith, they were sent to another country, where a fair-minded religious ruler would keep them safe. This is the story of Muhammad sending his followers from Mecca to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Another example of dialogue is when a Christian delegation came to meet with Muhammad and discuss their divisive differences in beliefs about Jesus. When it was time for the Christians to say their prayers they prepared to leave, but Muhammad encouraged them to pray in his mosque.
Peaceful encounters between our two faiths go back to the earliest days of Islam, there is no reason why they should not continue today. But such opportunities can be derailed by our difficult history. There is much talk of ‘truth’ when interaction between people of different faiths is being contemplated. Should ‘truth’ be a barrier for us, keeping others out so that we cannot even be the witnesses that Jesus asked us to be, or to adopt an attitude of searching? – as the Puritan John Robinson said, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word’.
As people of truth we should not be swayed by perceptions but seek to discover the reality, just as the Apostle Paul sought to be ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor. 9.22) in order to communicate with his society. In my own experience many people, including Christians, take issue with the idea of ‘all things to all people’ as mealy-mouthed, ‘political-correctness gone mad’. Perhaps because the words have drifted loose from their context of passionate, robust, honest and committed engagement. In fact, we may not realise, Paul is actually role-modelling how the Christian should ‘do’ inter faith encounter and dialogue.
Inevitably, in my own work I am often speaking up for Islam, bringing to bear what I have learnt, or more often, and more likely, what I have experienced. Some would say that this is the point at which inter faith work has gone too far, and I might agree if that was all that happened (yet without forgetting Jesus’ simple but challenging words, ‘Do unto others …’). Because the reality is that Muslims are also speaking up for Christians, supporting, for example, David Cameron’s comments about Britain being a Christian country, or speaking up on behalf of Christians suffering at the hands of mobs and unjust rulers in Muslim-majority countries. Or on hearing a Muslim colleague (who was educated by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in India) quote those important and well known words from Micah 6.8, ‘this is what the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God’. Again the prophetic wisdom, speaking to someone in another tradition, gives a blueprint for inter faith (or any other) encounter – being balanced, developing committed and trusting relationships and not being too proud in this world, as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else.
But perhaps, ultimately, our principles – dogma and theology – will get in the way and make it clear that inter faith does not fit with the Gospel. Yet, one of my colleagues Dr Andrew Smith, formerly of Scripture Union, now the Bishop of Birmingham’s inter faith advisor, found that as a school worker in Birmingham the only way to talk about Christianity was in a dialogical way. The way of dialogue involves listening as much as (or more than) talking, taking account of where the other is and giving them space for their own witness. These principles became local guidelines for sharing faith, and eventually developed into the Christian Muslim Forum’s Ethical Witness Guidelines.
All of this does mean that for some of us, it is our calling to follow the way of Francis and Paul, to take the bold step of encountering the other deeply; just as Jesus did, when others were turning away and saying, ‘No, that’s too far for me’. It is only in the deep encounter that we can begin to have some insight into the other’s beliefs, values and to walk with God.