The beginning of the new year is an opportunity to deal with a point of business from the old one: the letter by 138 Muslim scholars back in October for unity between Muslims and Christians. Since I was appointed by my church’s General Assembly to a position in the denomination, I think I can make some kind of response to this, as it was addressed to "Leaders of Christians everywhere," although I should emphasise that the opinions I express anywhere on this site are my own and do not constitute an official position of the Church of God.
Let me begin by saying that the vast majority of my contact with Muslims has been though my work and education as an engineer, not in the ministry. This has been the case through the pursuit of my two degrees, my career in the deep foundations equipment business, and most recently through my technical site, vulcanhammer.net. This last includes the many thanks and favourable comments on the site from engineers in Muslim countries. Such comments and expressions of gratitude make the endeavour worthwhile, and for these I am grateful. I am also grateful for the Muslims who have debated the subject of Islam and Christianity with me, frequently with great vigour. Our convergence may not be what we’re hoping for, but I always learn something from the encounter, and that’s more than I can say from my encounters with many people in this life.
Getting to the letter, there are a two things about it which strike me as especially odd.
The first concerns the letter’s opening emphasis on the unity of God. This is something that certainly Christians and Muslims share in a world where we see on the one hand many who worship many gods and on the other those who worship none and believe in none. However, to include the Hadith "He hath no associate" is for us who have some familiarity with Islam a decidedly retrograde step. "Associationism" is something that Muslims accuse Christians of relating to the deity of Christ, which of course is a major difference between Islam and Christianity (the Qur’an’s rather interesting witness notwithstanding.) The formal term for this is the shirk, and the penalty for this is severe in countries where shar’ia is operative.
The second is the letter’s long emphasis on the love of God. In Christianity loving God is in reality the highest act of the Christian, and the letter’s citations of the Torah and Injil underscore that. God’s love for man is universal. In Islam, however, as I understand it the first duty of man relative to Allah is to submit to Allah’s absolute will. Allah’s love for man is a reciprocation of those who love him. As is the case with the unity of God, in their attempt to show a point of unity, they reveal a point of asymmetry between the two faiths.
Let me now turn to one issue that has arisen since the letter was written: the issue of the Crusades. Now I said at the start that my contact with Muslims has largely been with engineers. These people are good at math, and they know that I was not around during the Crusades. They understand that I had nothing to do with them, which may explain in part why I have never gotten into this issue in my discussions. My church wasn’t around for them either, and for many of those who came out and apologised for them, that is also the case.
I deal with this issue elsewhere, where I make the following comment:
In the early years of Islam, conquest of vast civilisations was the rule rather than the exception. The early Muslim generals were right not to pursue conquest in Europe too hard; Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia were far more valuable places. All of these had been great nations at one time and even at the rise of Islam were still advanced from remote, crude places such as Britain and France.
Early Islamic civilisation was a wonder in many ways…Muslims were not only able to (eventually) run the Christian forces out of the Holy Land, they were also able to demonstrate to same forces that they were living like pigs (and, as Moses Maimonides reminded us, with them) back home.
So I’m not sure whether an apology is really in order at this stage.
Or perhaps I am not consistent with my own past practice. When I was an undergraduate, I took a Mechanical Engineering Laboratory course. One of my fellow students from Pakistan asked to borrow one of my lab reports, and unfortunately took a little too much inspiration from it. When our professor realised it, he told me to find the Pakistani and for the three of us to meet. We did, he looked at the Pakistani and asked him, "Did you copy this?" The Pakistani admitted it, the professor looked at me and dismissed me, and the Pakistani went home for a semester. When he returned, I felt compelled to tell him that I was sorry for the trouble that came out of the lab course, even though he acknowledged that I had no fault in the matter.
And that brings me to my last point: if we really want peace between Muslims and Christians, the best way to start is through personal relationships, not only between our religious leaders but also amongst lay Christians and plain Muslims. It’s not always easy, and it requires patience. But it’s worth it. It requires first that we understand what our own beliefs are and then to learn those of another, and both of these processes require effort. If nothing else, it would clear out much of the rubbish that floats about the Christian world about Islam and vice versa; I have found that, if you want to find out something about Islam, ask a Muslim. Or better still, more than one.
So perhaps we should start meeting at coffee shops, where we can partake of what the Sufis used to call the "wine of Islam," and discuss these things at length until it closes and we are ejected. If we cannot do this physically, then do it virtually. But God has brought us into a New Year; let us honour him by making good use of it.
For those who believe and do righteous deeds, will be Gardens; beneath which rivers flow: That is the great Salvation, (the fulfilment of all desires), Truly strong is the Grip (and Power) of thy Lord. (Sura 85:11-12)