An immigrant white Christian businessman from Canada writes about his experiences in a majority Islamic country in the Middle East. He is a family man, a management consultant, and one of those scholarly types that reads history books for entertainment. He has been learning, not just Arabic and business, but learning from Islam about how he would like to live as a Christian.
This book is a call to humility and inclusion in Christian-Muslim dialogue. There are more than a billion of each faith on the planet now, and the relationship between the world's two largest faiths is too important to be left to the minority of priests and imams to sort out. Regular everyday Muslims and Christians need to be building bridges, investing in understanding, and approaching each other with a humble orthodoxy. Perhaps we could start by simply inviting each other over for tea.
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Learning from IslamHow to Live as a Christian
By Kamal al-Kanady
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Kamal al-Kanady
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShahada Means Testimony of Faith, or As I've Learned it: Know What You Believe
Magic and Meaning Part 1
The Shahada is the Muslim declaration of faith: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." It's both a creed and a declaration of allegiance. For most, it serves as a reminder of their core beliefs, and for others it serves more mystical purposes, warding off evil spirits and such. If a person of another faith wants to become a Muslim officially, they need only to make this declaration, and there is some disagreement over whether or not a person needs to mean it in their heart or just say it with their mouth in order for it to be effective.
I've been in a number of rooms where guys have tried to get me to say it. They've pleaded, and even begged me to say the shahada, because they believe that whether or not it means anything to me, my saying it will make me "saved" from an Islamic perspective. I was irritated by the pressure once, so I said, "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet, and I am a chicken."
"Praise God! Wait. What?"
"I am a chicken."
"What do you mean?
"Perfect question. If I don't mean it, is it true? And if it's not true, does it matter if I mean it? Can truly believing that I am a chicken turn me into a chicken?"
"So what makes a Muslim, a Muslim? Is it the shahada?"
"No. Good point. What makes a person a Muslim is knowing what they believe and treating people correctly."
So like I said in the introduction, saying you're a Christian doesn't make you a Christian, and saying the shahada doesn't make you a Muslim. You have to know what you believe. I have become a much stronger Christian in the Middle East, because I spend so much time with Muslims. They consistently ask me about my faith, about the Bible, and about Jesus. They consistently share their beliefs about Islam, about the Qur'an, and about what they believe. In that environment you really learn what it is you believe. We talk about religion a lot. Do you think that my friends would respect me if I didn't know what I believed? Or if I couldn't articulate it? No way.
In 1 Peter 3:15 we are instructed: "And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it." These days, I get to do it in Arabic. After being here for about six months I got into a taxi one day and, sure enough, the usual dialogue followed.
"Are you a Muslim?"
"No, Christian, but close."
"Close? It's pretty much the same thing."
"Close, perhaps, but not the same."
"Jesus and Muhammad are both prophets, so it's the same."
"Actually Jesus and Muhammad are both apostles too. But they're still not the same. Jesus is the Messiah, Muhammad isn't. You should read your Qur'an more closely."
"Okay, but the Qur'an doesn't tell us what the word 'Messiah' means."
"Maybe not, but the Injil (Gospel) does, and the Qur'an assumes you already know the Injil, but you haven't read it yet, have you?"
"Well you should read your Qur'an more closely."
That's when I had to get out of the cab. I've had that conversation about a hundred times. I'm not going to lie; I find it frustrating that I've gone through the trouble of reading the Qur'an more than once, and in general my Muslim friends can't be bothered to read the Bible. But knowing what they believe has helped me tremendously. It's not my intent here to embarrass those that practice Islam. If you keep reading you'll find that I have serious questions about the standard Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an, but I also have serious questions about the standard Christian interpretation of the Bible. As a Christian in dialogue with Muslims, my own faith is sharpening as a result of the dialogue. I have to be honest about some parts of my faith that don't make sense, and often my Muslim friends confront parts of their faith that don't make sense as well.
Camping in the Desert
I went on a camping trip last year with a few of my friends. It was like a men's retreat, and they thought to invite me along. Fifteen men spent five days in an amazing beach area: blue water, beautiful beaches, and no tourists—brilliant. Each day we got up early and drove in a caravan of Land Cruisers to a beach or some sort of eco-tourism location. It was amazing. We ate lunch and then returned to the camp for dinner. After dinner we sat around drinking tea and talking for hours. The hours spent in the cars and at the camp provided ample time for the guys to get to know me. Of course, they all want me to go to heaven when I die, so they want me to become a Muslim, which means that several of them did their best to convert me.
As an aside, I should tell you that every time a Muslim tries to convert me, I'm flattered. It doesn't really annoy me. At the worst, they are trying to get closer to God by earning points with him by witnessing to me and encouraging me to convert. That's big points with God for them. Less selfishly, my friends actually care about me and want me to be with them in heaven. The thought of me dying and not being in heaven really bothers them. At best, it's an invitation to dialogue. Since I am surrounded by conservative Muslims every day and they are not likewise surrounded by Christians, I have many more interfaith conversations than they do, and now after several years I am much better prepared for the conversation than they are, generally speaking. So I've learned to enjoy the conversation, which for me is a fun, mutual exploration for truth. For them, these conversations either bring them closer to God or to me, which is good in either case.
So while sitting around drinking tea at the end of the second day of camping, my friend Aiban, whom I've just met, asks me, "Why don't you follow Muhammad instead of Jesus?"
Yes, it was direct, but I had heard the question before. I thought to start my response with history this time. For my Christian readers, the grave of the prophet Muhammad is in the house of Aisha, in the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia. The gravesite is called the hujrah. So I asked Aiban if he knew whose graves were in the hujrah in Saudi Arabia.
"Of course," he said, "the prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr." (Abu Bakr took over leadership of the Muslims after Muhammad died).
"But there are four graves in the Hujrah," I replied.
"The third is for Caliph Umar and the fourth is prepared but is empty; it is for Jesus the Messiah."
"Do you know why it is empty?"
"Jesus is not dead."
Okay, for those of you who are new to Islam, this might come as a surprise to you. Muslims believe that Jesus is alive and with God at the moment. Generally, Muslims believe that the Qur'an denies that Jesus ever died, though many Islamic scholars, both classical and contemporary, disagree with that popular view. Even the traditionalist commentary of Sayyid Qutb admits that whether the Qur'an affirms or denies Jesus' death is not clear. The Qur'an doesn't say whether or not Jesus died, only that he was capable of dying, and that the Jews didn't kill him (Q4:157-158). According to this part of Qur'an, which is a large section correcting Jewish misconceptions of God, the Jews thought that they had killed Jesus. As Jesus in the Qur'an is both the Spirit of God and Word of God, this idea is laughable. To think that anyone had the power to kill God's Messiah is a most profound arrogance in the view of the Qur'an. Christians would agree, Jesus made clear that he laid down his own life (John 10:18). If Jesus did not will his own death and God did not allow it, it could not have happened. So to recap, Muslims agree generally that Jesus is alive, but they disagree on whether or not he ever died. So I continued my conversation with Aiban:
"Right, Jesus is alive! Muslims and Christians both agree that Jesus is not dead but living. We agree that Muhammad is dead and Jesus is alive."
"Yes, that's right. Jesus must return to defeat the anti-Christ."
"Wait. What? Muslims believe that in the last days Jesus is coming back to defeat the anti-Christ?"
"Yes." Aiban explained, "The anti-Christ will perform miracles and many will believe in him and follow him. Then the great Imam will rise up and do battle with him and a major war will ensue, but the Imam and his army will not be strong enough to defeat the anti-Christ, so Jesus will return to defeat him."
"And tell me, who will rule the world once the anti-Christ is defeated?"
"Jesus, the Messiah, of course."
"So let me get this straight ... Muslims believe that Jesus is alive, is the only one with power over ultimate evil, and will rule the world in the end times?"
"Then you have answered your question for me. If as a Muslim you believe that Jesus is alive, is the only one who has the power to defeat the anti-Christ, and will rule the world, then why would I not follow Jesus instead of Muhammad? And more to the point, why don't you? I simply prefer to pray in the name of the living one, who will defeat evil and rule the world, and this right is open to any Muslim."
He thought I was very clever, and I never once referred to the Bible. Not that I avoided it, I just didn't need it for that conversation. I think it's really important for Muslims to read the Gospels (Injil) and the five books of Moses (Torah).
The Book of God
The Qur'an tells Muslims that the Gospels (Injil) and the five books of Moses are from God. Many Muslims refuse to read them because of a rumour that they've been changed, which is both true and untrue. Others say it's because they are not revealed in the Arabic language. I think it's just laziness or pride. Let's get something out of the way right now. First, roughly 80 percent of the world's Muslims cannot read Arabic. Next, God speaks both Greek and Hebrew, and just because the Qur'an appeared in Arabic doesn't mean that the Injil and Torah are invalid because of how they were written. That's ridiculous. I speak four languages, and all of the letters I write, in whichever language, are equally my letters. God is bigger than I am. How much more is his command of Hebrew to be respected by speakers of Arabic?
Yes, some words differ in manuscripts of the Torah, the Injil, and the Qur'an and in the various masahif al-sharif (the old manuscripts of the Qur'an). I've seen the Cairo and the Topkapi manuscripts of the Qur'an, and the differences are minor, a word here and there but the meaning is the same.
There are some verses in our Bibles that vary from manuscript to manuscript too, but the meaning is the same. There are other published books that can explain that to you better than I can. Also, there's the issue of an apocryphal book called 4 Ezra, an originally Jewish text that Christians definitely corrupted. I did some digging, and it was most certainly muharraf (corrupted), as the Muslims say. It's no longer in the Protestant corpus of the Bible. We removed it, probably because it was corrupted. So yes, Christians corrupted one of the apocryphal books that would have certainly been included in the Bible texts of Syriac speaking Christians in the seventh century, during the life of Muhammad, and no, we didn't change the texts that we have now in the four gospel records.
That's as deeply as I'll go into that for the moment. Back to the story.
"I'm sorry, you guys. The Qur'an talks about itself as a volume in a multi-volume work called The Book (al-kitab). I've read all of the extant volumes in The Book, and most of you haven't, so I feel like I'm at an unfair advantage. You should read the rest of The Book, and then we can continue talking. It's also not fair for you to read the last page in a letter from God to mankind, see the seal of the prophets at the end of the letter, and think that you've read the whole letter from God. There are other pages in the letter; the Qur'an tells you this, but you think you have everything you need from reading only the last page."
There were eight of us in that conversation, and by midnight four of them were convinced that they needed to read the Bible. I didn't ask any of them to convert to Christianity, and none did. I believe that the key to good dialogue is mutual understanding. I've read the Qur'an, the Gospels, and the books of Moses, which puts me at an advantage, and I told them as much. I just want them to have the same advantage that I have. Sometimes I meet Muslims who have read the Bible, and that's a bit more stimulating.
A little while ago I was in an ambush. That's what I call it when my friends invite me to sit with them for the evening, and when I arrive I find out that I'm the topic of conversation, and an Imam or Islamic scholar is present to debate with me. I know what they're thinking, 'Khalas! Enough is enough! This foreigner has been here for years, and he's still not a Muslim; we just need to get him into a room with someone who has the right answers.'
Invariably, they don't have the right answers.
In any case, one of the silliest things I come across is this whole bit about the Injil (Gospels) not being a part of al-kitab (the Book of God). Aside from the corruption charge, there's the common Islamic misconception that the Injil was a single written volume, sent down to Jesus from God, like the Qur'an. Instead, what they find in the Bible is four testimonials of disciples who travelled with Jesus. So to Muslims, the Gospels don't look much like the Injil. Instead, they look like books of stories about the guy who was to have written the Injil, which is apparently lost.
So the scholar whose job it was to convert me in this particular ambush brought up the corruption issue, which is very easily dismissed based on Islamic sources. None of the early Islamic mufassirun (commentators) upheld the charge of textual corruption. I know this, and so did he. The early commentators did not support the current theory of Bible corruption, and most Muslims I've met are smart enough to drop the subject once they are faced with their own sources of authority disagreeing with them.
So the scholar's next line of thought was that if the Gospel texts aren't corrupted, then perhaps the Gospel texts aren't the Injil in any case. The Injil is a single volume instruction manual, not a collection of affidavits from supposed witnesses. So he held up his copy and told me flatly,
"This can't be the Injil; Jesus didn't write it."
"Does God speak Greek?"
"Just follow me for a minute. Does God ... speak ... Greek?"
"Well that's a relief. Zamakhshari and Baidhawi (both respected classical Islamic scholars) rejected the possibility that the word Injil was originally an Arabic word. In fact, it was brought into the Arabic language from the Greek word Evangelion, which means, 'good news.' The Christians knew that the 'good news' was recorded in the four testimonies that we call as a complete set, the Gospel, al-Injil. They knew it for six hundred years before the Injil was mentioned in the Qur'an. If God didn't speak Greek, then I can see how God may have confused the collection of four testimonies for a single book written by Jesus, but since God speaks Greek, then he certainly knew the meaning of the word before he brought it into Arabic. You know, it's not wise for you to insult God's intelligence by consistently confusing the Injil that God wrote about for some imaginary book. God speaks Greek. He knew what Injil meant."
But I'm not always the teacher. You see, the thing about dialogue is that it has to be fair. I take them back to the Qur'an, so I have to expect them to take me back to the Bible. And they do. I'm okay with that. I believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but that doesn't mean that it's textually perfect or that it is the primary revelation. You'll find in the footnotes on Mark 16:9-20 in your Bible that it is a disputed text, for example. We're not sure if it was in the original or not, but we know it is not in the oldest extant manuscripts of Mark's book. Inerrancy basically means that the scripture all comes from God, and God doesn't lie, so it doesn't contradict itself, and its message is coherent. I believe that. Whether or not Mark 16:9-20 is a part of the text doesn't change the coherent message of the Bible or raise questions of God having lied about anything, so whether or not it is in our Bible now is essentially a non-issue.
Revelation: God is Not an Idiot
Likewise, the Bible isn't the primary revelation for Christians. The person of Jesus is. See the Gospel of John, Chapter 1. The person of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity incarnate, his life and continued living is the primary revelation of God. The Bible is not. The Bible is one of God's words; Jesus is the Word of God.
Excerpted from Learning from Islam by Kamal al-Kanady Copyright © 2012 by Kamal al-Kanady. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Magic and Meaning Part 1....................1
Camping in the Desert....................3
The Book of God....................6
Revelation: God is Not an Idiot....................9
Trinity in Ambiguity....................12
Unity in Ambiguity....................16
Literacy at the Heart of Revelation....................19
Chapter 2 Salat Means Prayer, or As I've Learned It: Inconvenience Yourself....................24
When Two Values Collide....................25
Prayer is Success....................26
Magic and Meaning Part 2....................30
Community of Practice....................33
Practice of Community....................39
Chapter 3 Sawm means Fasting, or As I've Learned it: Spirituality is a Communal Discipline....................42
Communal Knowledge Stewardship....................53
Christmas and Eid al-Fitr....................55
Chapter 4 Zakat Means Charitable Giving, or As I've Learned It: Don't Outsource the Poor....................63
The Least of These....................65
Outsourcing the Least of These....................67
Conspiring on Behalf of the Least of These....................70
Competing on Behalf of the Least of These....................72
Chapter 5 Hajj Means Pilgrimage, or As I've Learned It: There Is No Faith Without Works....................75
Letter and Spirit....................75
The Right Rite....................77
Wandering Off On the Road to Rome....................81
Who is the Master, and Who is the Student?....................83
There is No Faith, Unless There are Works....................85
The Other Son of Abraham....................87
Cursing Those Whom God has Blessed....................89
Chapter 6 Kalam Means Dialogue, or What I Hope My Friends Learn From Me....................92
One: Love Your Enemies....................92
Two: Grace is a Gift....................100
Three: The Two Commandments....................103
Epilogue: On Blessed Crusade....................107