Let’s call it neutral ground.
The local park. A lovely patch of green space with play structures and sports fields and splash pads. On a bench, under the umbrella of a young gingko tree, you sip an overpriced latte and ignore your smartphone at strategic intervals so the kids think you’re paying attention.
Your Muslim neighbour, whose name you can never remember, enters the park and shoos his kids towards the swings. He sits. You chat. When the conversation shifts to religion, you sense a certain opportunity, and ask him some questions about him and his faith. He does the same. Some time passes. Both families’ children gather at the grownups’ feet to listen and learn.
You never knew about the origins of the word Islam – surrender – and compliment him on how diligent he is towards that goal. Prayer five times a day. Hajj. Something about pillars.
“Wow, we really have a lot to learn from each other,” you say.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m afraid our message has been corrupted by ignorance and violence.”
“But that’s just a minority. All you want to do is live in peace!”
“Not really. Every Muslim must be prepared to take up the struggle. The jihadis are just following Allah. They’re very popular, actually, despite the violence.”
“Not you. You’re so nice.”
“The problem, dear infidel neighbour, isn’t that we can’t be nice to each other, but that it is my duty as a Muslim to convert you –”
“Well, I’ll be. That’s my duty, too.”
“– or smite you in the neck until you are dead. I am sorry.”
“Hmm, yes. It is problematic that the extremists use those verses –”
“The Qur’an is broken into aaya’s.”
“I thought they were called surahs.”
“Those are more like chapters.”
“Oh. Sorry. Regardless, the violent misinterpretation of your holy texts cannot speak for the whole.”
“It’s not misinterpretation. There’s no wiggle room on the command to smite unbelievers and apostates. Unfortunately, Allah’s revelation included no opportunity for contextualization, which was very convenient to The Prophet’s military and political aspirations, and is our inflexible legacy.”
“Us, too. ‘. . . not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law. . .’”
“Shhh. It’s not the same thing. The Prophet –”
“Alayhi as-salām,” you say. “That means ‘Peace be upon him.’”
“Yes, I know.”
“We have prophets, too.”
“But you’d say Jesus is God, right?”
“He sure is.”
“Lā ’ilāha ’illā-llāh.”
Your neighbour rolls his eyes.
This is a difficult conversation, you think, imagining ways to redirect his obvious misunderstandings towards mutual respect. It’s about love, after all, and he needs more of the kind you have to share. So you go on the offensive. Both barrels.
You say, “We have more in common than what divides us!”
“You think so?”
“Do you think that because we have the same Abrahimic underpinnings and many of the same rituals and superstitions we are basically on the same path?”
“I could list many ways in which –”
“Please don’t. Your understanding of the convergences and schisms that have shaped the world’s major monotheistic religions merely highlights how far Islam has fallen from the tree of knowledge.”
“You have that tree, too?”
“Kind of. It’s wrapped more in metaphor than your version.”
“Speaking of metaphor, Habib –”
“Not my name.”
“Sorry. Hassan, then –”
For a moment, you’re at a loss for words, torn down by the simplest – yet among the most egregious – of errors in the pursuit of relational ministry. Names are so important. You wanted to talk about parables and analogies, the shared poetics and linguistics of that part of the world. (You were going to say Palestine, of course, because Muslims don’t like the other name.) But although your mouth opens and closes like you’re carping for fish feed, nothing comes out.
“Abdullah,” your daughter stage-whispers.
You shush her and say that it isn’t time for supper yet.
“No, Daddy, that’s his name. Abdullah.”
“She’s right,” your neighbour says, and smiles.
“Oh, yes. Heh. ‘From the mouths of babes . . .’”
“They save us, don’t they?”
“You and your wife must be very proud.”
“I am, certainly. I’m not allowed to permit her to have such a lack of humility.”
You almost laugh and tell him how much sense that makes, how sometimes you wish your wife would show a little more restraint, but it occurs to you that these thoughts might not be strictly Biblical. Besides, this is really all about him, and there is still much daylight to fill with that thing called witness.