Readers of this blog know that Abu Daoud, Anglican missionary to the Middle East, is a long-time blog partner and friend with Positive Infinity. We caught up with him in an (appropriately) undisclosed location to discuss his work and Christianity in the Middle East, now and moving forward.
1) How did you become interested in ministry to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?
I had been familiar with missions since my teen years, when I made a confession of faith during a five-year stretch when I was living in Latin America. I was never a missionary kid, and in fact my parents never taught me the first thing about the Christian faith, notwithstanding their baptismal vows (May God forgive them this great offence). Anyway, I went to school with a lot of missionary kids though, so I certainly knew some basic ideas on mission. But it was back in the US when I was about 22 that the mega-church I was attending, a Bible Church, asked me to co-lead a weekday evening study group on world missions. It was a simplified version of Perspectives on World Mission which is a great program for any church to host.
It was then that I became aware of two things: One, the largest group of people in the world who have not heard the Gospel are Muslims. And two, that Christians had largely given up on Muslims. I had seen the effect of this in Latin America, where American evangelicals would cross sea and land to make nominal Roman Catholics into evangelicals. Fair enough, I suppose there is a place for that, but my heart was captured by the Church’s mission to Muslims. I felt a great burden on my heart and sense of needing to repent for the faithlessness of the Church in this area. I asked God what I could do, and he said ‘Go’. This was before I got married, which happened when I was in my mid-twenties.
2) What type of training did you obtain for this? Was it helpful? For others who might be considering this, what kind of training is best?
My own training was largely on my own. I will say that having a background in philosophy from a secular university is great. I mean, philosophy is all about listening very carefully to what people say and write, to the point where you understand them better than they understand themselves even. We debated and thought about the big questions—the relation of the soul to the body, the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, and so on. With that sort of background you are really able to interact with Muslims on a whole different level than what folks learn at the local bible college or what have you. Also, Muslims are aware that in the distant past they produced a couple of outstanding philosophers. I mean, these were the people with whom Thomas Aquinas was interacting! So when you say you are a scholar of philosophy and religions, which is what I am, and what I tell people when they ask me, ‘What do you do?’ they really respect it.
All of that having been said, that was providential and the hand of God, not some specific strategy thought up by a missions agency. For people considering the Muslim world today, I would make the follow recommendations:
- Read stuff about Islam by Muslims, not by evangelicals. I am sad to say that while there are some great evangelical scholars of Islam like Gairdner and Cragg (both Anglicans), most of the stuff published by evangelicals on Islam is rubbish. Don’t waste your time. If you want to know Islam pick up something by Muslims or by Roman Catholics who, for some reason, are more competent scholars by and large, in my opinion. And read Ramon Llull, if you don’t know who Llull is then don’t even think about mission to Islam until you meet him. He is the father of the movement, after all.
- There is no magic key. Don’t believe it when someone says that after 1400 years of mission to Islam they have discovered the magic key to getting Muslims to convert. Americans love this sort of thing. We go to conferences that promise to save our marriages or finances or spur church growth or whatever, but all of those are easy matters compared to mission to Muslims. There is no substitute for lengthy, sensitive, creative mission in the Muslim world. Ora et labora. There is nothing new under the sun.
- Learn about politics. Americans think that politics and religion can be separated. Not really. It sounds nice on paper but in real life it is impossible. If you want to reach Palestinians learn everything about their history and land, same with Iranians or Algerian Berbers or Turks. When they realize you know their history better than they do, they will hear what you have to say on other matters because you will have won their respect, because you have shown them respect.
- Finally, know how to interpret the Bible. Most young evangelicals don’t know the first thing about biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), though they think they do. What they have memorized at Bible college are the traditions of their own churches regarding how to interpret certain themes and passages from the bible. If they would say, ‘it is the tradition of the Assemblies of God (or Southern Baptist Convention) to interpret the following verses as meaning X, Y, and Z’, that would be a coherent, responsible, cogent answer. But no, ‘The Bible says X and it means Y.’ That is what you will hear, and it is not an honourable way of treating Muslims, tradition, and especially the Holy Scripture. Tradition is important and respected here. The man without tradition is the man with no soul. But they say, these verses mean X, Y, and Z, without understanding what they are saying or why. This is disrespectful to the word of God.
3) You come from an Anglican tradition. How is this advantageous in ministry to people in MENA? Are there any drawbacks?
It is advantageous in many ways. The main one being that Anglicanism is reformed and protestant, but in a measured way, and that is truly global. This allows for a great range of opinions within Anglicanism, and has produced probably the single best corpus of Islamic scholarship of any one church in the world, with the possible exception of the Catholics. It is also helpful because it is a broad family in that we have liberals, evangelicals, anglo-catholics, progressives, and traditionalists, and being in one family means that we have to talk with each other and be in conversation with people with whom we don’t really agree on various topics. It’s a mess, no doubt. But a good mess. Also, the traditional churches, like the Orthodox, respect Anglicans—we have bishops and liturgy and holy days. They get that and don’t react fearfully like they do with other, newer, forms of Christianity.
In terms of drawbacks, yes there are some. Anglicans, especially the Church of England, have a strong history in the area of Muslim evangelism, but most Anglicans (outside of sub-Saharan Africa) have lost that vision. So when I say I am Anglican my fellow evangelical missionaries view me with suspicion. But after a while they get to know me and things work out fine. It is a good thing about the mission field—you have to work with people who are unlike you to make any progress. I work with Baptists and Brethren and Assemblies of God missionaries and ministers all the time and that is a strength, not a weakness.
4) What types of response do you obtain as a Christian in MENA?
It depends…I live in a city with a sizeable Christian minority, but my country has a tiny Christian minority. Some people respect Christians because they have made great contributions to education and healthcare here. I feel like a lot of Muslims are really frustrated by Christians though. Our numbers are much lower but we are much more respected internationally than they are. They send their kids to our schools. They get sick and come to our hospitals. I think they ask themselves, how is it that that Qur’an says we (Muslims) are the greatest people in the world, but these powerless Christians do so much more for society?
Personally, people are usually friendly to me. I speak Arabic well; I know the local customs. I clearly identify myself as a Christian, not as a Jesus-follower or Jesus Muslim or any of those silly things that other Americans do so often. If they don’t know what Christians believe or think, I explain it. It’s not that hard. If people don’t know what a submarine is, you explain it and describe it, then they will have a basic idea. You don’t invent some new term or word or say, ‘well, you know cars…it is like a car.’ They assume Americans are Christians, which is not unreasonable. I try to be myself basically, and not fabricate some new Abu Daoud for people because I think I will do better in the area of evangelism. You need to stay in peoples’ lives over time also. You can’t just pop in and expect to share the Gospel and for people to listen. They need to see you month after month for years and then you will be part of their life, and then they will feel comfortable speaking with you and listening.