Working the foundations
In the latest presentation for our church’s “Hearts & Minds” series, where Christians talk about how faith affects their daily lives and work, we heard from Scott, a pastor whose daughter converted to Islam. His journey has been towards understanding, where rather than trying to “win her back” to Christ, he seeks to know as much as he can about the religion she has chosen to follow.
He’s had some pushback against this approach from Christians who think he’s letting her and Christianity down. His view – which I agree with – is that it’s not our job to convert anyone, but that we’re to love our neighbour and God will claim who he claims. In response to questions about witnessing, both to and from Muslims, Scott quoted from the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion.”
My immediate thought: But how many Muslims actually know those words from their own holy text?
What probably isn’t known
In reality, not many do. Estimates place Muslim literacy at about 40 percent worldwide, so the majority of practicing Muslims rely not on the Quran’s words, but on the teachings of imams who are themselves often undereducated and misinformed. As a result, when it comes to the most pressing issues facing Islam, despite great fervour, there is a worrisome lack of scriptural literacy among Mohammed’s faithful.
This, I think, is a key reality when we try to understand our Muslim neighbours. Most are unaware, for example, that the compulsion for women to wear the hijab has contentious and dubious origins. Or that the timing and content of Allah’s “revelations” reveal startling parallels with Mohammed’s political and social context, thus calling their accuracy and purity into question. Or that the Quran has enough references to violence to put “Islam is a religion of peace,” an oft-heard refrain, under serious scrutiny.
To be sure, many of the world’s poorest are Muslim, so educational opportunities are as rare for them as they are for any of the world’s neediest. However, it’s not just economic or social realities keeping Muslims from learning about themselves, but a systemic lack of intellectual vigour. Even amongst wealthy and educated Muslims, true scholarship – i.e. the kind that demands rigorous debate – is virtually nonexistent.
Here, I think, we have a starting point for dialogue, in that Christianity has come through this very reality. These days, when it comes to the Bible most Christians believe that it is inspired by God but written by sinful humans responding to their own contexts. We don’t, by and large, fear intense examination of the verses and chapters we consume. For a Muslim, who has a lifetime of lessons that the Quran is the perfect inspiration of Allah, that Mohammed was merely the mouthpiece who had no role in shaping its words, that it can only be read in classical Arabic and cannot even be called the Quran when translated, this reads as apostasy.
Which should sound familiar. For centuries, illiterate believers were told that only priests could interpret the Bible and that questioning it was damnable heresy. Even our beloved Reformation did not result in the masses being able to read, dissect and digest the Bible overnight. It took centuries of love and grace and sinful misdirection to embrace a dynamic relationship to our scriptures. We are still learning, of course, lest we hoist ourselves too high; however, this dynamism has strengthened our understanding, reinforcing that the keys to our faith are grace and love, given through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Islam provides five “pillars of faith” for Muslims to observe in the hopes of attaining paradise, but it cannot provide a saviour. Nor can Islam provide the assurance of salvation even if its strictest tenets are observed. Further, because Islam does not encourage its adherents to test or interrogate its most sacred precepts, it cannot prevent the perpetuation of ignorance and the spreading of oppression. And, when vigorously scrutinized, Islam cannot honestly separate itself from its most difficult, built-in realities: violent jihadism, eclipsed gender rights, suppressed freedom of expression and so on.
Finding a starting point for dialogue – one that doesn’t completely whitewash the challenges, at any rate – can be extremely difficult. But if our goal is to understand and witness to our Muslim neighbours so that God can change their hearts, perhaps the best approach is simply to journey with them back into their sacred texts and their history. Love them enough to learn, as it were, and let God work on their foundations.