The world of Islam is changing before our eyes as Muslim leaders reach out in dialogue to Christians and Jews. Seventh-day Adventists increasingly are involved as invitees and themselves are initiating conversations with Muslims.
Why would Adventists wish to be involved in these developments? And why would Muslims, given the large number of Christian bodies, be interested in meeting with a comparatively smaller faith grove in the Christian scene? The answers to these questions give insights into the rapid changes taking place.
Our Long Shadows
From the Adventist side, the reasons for our engagement are simple. They boil down to one word: mission. We are a world faith with a distinct identity and mission—to declare God’s character and to help prepare a people for the soon return of Jesus Christ. Islam likewise is a world faith, with followers not only in countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, but increasingly in countries with traditional Christian bases. Today some 5 million Muslims live in France, representing 10 percent of the population. In the United States, Muslims number around 10 million.
Thus almost anywhere on the face of the globe, Adventists and Muslims occupy the same ground. Muslims are our neighbors, not just followers of a far-off religion. As servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is incumbent on us to interact with Muslims on all levels, from the neighbor next door to official contacts.
For many years the Adventist Church has engaged in conversations with representatives of other churches. These encounters have resulted in much good, as stereotypes have been broken down and misunderstandings on both sides have been removed. On the Adventist side, a great benefit has been the dropping of the false designation of our church as a “cult” or “sect.”
I have been involved in these interchurch conversations for more than 20 years and am convinced that they are of significant value. I also have become persuaded that in all such meetings we should present our distinctive beliefs graciously, but clearly, winsomely, but honestly, holding back nothing that we stand for. To attempt to curry favor with the other party is to mislead and to invite both short- and long-term disaster.
Whether our conversations are with other Christians or with followers of other religions, our purpose is that there shall be a genuine, mutual recognition of who we are (and we ourselves can best state that), the values we seek and hold high, and why we seek the open scene and not obscurity.
These new conversations present us with new challenges. Muslims tend to paint all Christians with the same brush: in lifestyle, as pork eaters and alcohol drinkers; in geopolitical stance, as pro-Israel and anti-Arab. A major goal for Adventists is to show and explain that we are not just another Christian denomination; that our lifestyle is similar to Muslims’ in key areas; and that we are an international, global community of faith whose agenda is not driven by the winds and directions of secular politics. We also want to convey that our convictions about religious freedom—a topic of keen interest to Muslims in some countries—lead us to encourage leaders of all nations to permit adherents of minority faiths to build places of worship and assemble together.
While the differences of belief between Adventists and Muslims—particularly over the person and work of Jesus Christ—are major and are not to be “dumbed down,” there are significant points of contact that invite dialogue. Among these are the high regard we each have for holy writings; belief in creation rather than evolution; the expectation of and preparation for the Day of Judgment; the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; and belief in prophetic messengers. Thus, Adventists have openings for fruitful conversations with Muslims that other Christian churches do not.
For many years Adventists have been involved in cooperative endeavors with Muslims. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Loma Linda University heart team rendered much-appreciated service and Loma Linda still maintains contact through extension courses offered within the country. Likewise, in Afghanistan, Adventist medical work has a long history and through Loma Linda personnel today plays a major role.
In addition to such practical demonstrations of Adventism, the church set up an Institute for Adventist-Muslim Relations. Its representatives have quietly spread the knowledge of who we are and what we stand for in the Islamic world.
One of the first Muslim initiatives for dialogue in recent times originated in the state of Qatar on the Persian Gulf. For six years in succession the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Sharia Studies at the University of Qatar has sponsored an International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue. For the most recent meetings—in 2007 and 2008—Adventists have been invited to attend, with all expenses paid, and to present papers.
With the release of the open letter “A Common Word” on October 8, 2007, signed by 138 high-ranking Muslim clerics and leaders, the pace of interfaith engagement has accelerated. Now “dialogue” seems to have become the buzz word. The Vatican has set in motion ongoing conversations with leaders of Islam and the major Christian denominations, plus bodies like the World Council of Churches are meeting to decide their response to the invitation given in the open letter.
Ten days after the release of the open letter, the Adventist Church sent a reply to its framers, applauding their initiative and indicating our willingness to engage in dialogue with Muslims. When a joint Christian-Muslim meeting of scholars met at Yale University in July 2008, an Adventist was invited to join the group of 150 assembled for discussions. Likewise, when King Abdullah of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia called a meeting to plan the international interfaith dialogue that convened in Madrid, Spain, July 13-15, an Adventist was included among the invitees.
In the United States we have established a relationship with the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in America. The General Conference hosted a meeting with their representatives at the church’s headquarters, and Adventists and Muslims cooperated in a joint Health Expo at the group’s annual convention held in Columbus, Ohio, August 30–September 1. Some 40,000 people attended the gathering.
Larger initiatives lie just ahead. We have developed an excellent relation with the directors of the Royal Jordanian Institute of Interfaith Studies, based in Amman, Jordan. The first of a series of official conversations has been planned for the near future.
This is just the beginning. The world of Islam, changing fast, is vast and diverse. Impelled by mission, we need to engage Muslims in many different parts of the world. Whenever and wherever the Lord opens a door of opportunity, we must move ahead without delay.
William G. Johnsson is an assistant to the General Conference president for Interfaith Relations.