Children of Abraham
How should Adventists relate to Muslims?
By William G. Johnsson
The world’s three great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—look back to Abraham as the father of the faithful. Whereas the first two trace their spiritual line through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah, Islam looks to Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. And just as friction developed between Sarah and Hagar over their respective sons, so relations between the three religions springing from Abraham have had a checkered history.
Today, Islam is much in the news. The media coverage tends to cast the religion in a negative light: suicide bombers, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, violence in Lebanon, tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians, and on and on as terrorist groups frequently have a connection with Islam. To more and more people in the West, Islam is seen as remote and threatening, a religion associated with violence and oppression of women, who are kept in second-class status and forced to wear veils or head scarves.
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the bombings in London’s underground, crystallized and hardened attitudes toward the followers of Islam. Many people in America and Europe feel uneasy, suspicious, and even downright hostile. Some evangelical preachers have fanned the flames of prejudice and bigotry, uttering apocalyptic predictions of a global struggle between Christianity and Islam.
With relations at such a low point and getting worse, how should Adventists relate to Islam and its followers? This is a question we cannot avoid. As followers of Jesus Christ first of all, we cannot avoid it: Jesus calls upon us to love all peoples, even those we may think of as our enemies (Matt. 5:44, 45). As Adventists, we cannot avoid it: Islam is a global religion, as are we; and inevitably in carrying out our global mission we will interface with Muslims.
I give my opinion as a concerned servant of the Lord and the Adventist Church who now is much involved in relations with peoples of other faiths. In my judgment, the following points represent the minimum:
1. We should be fair and accurate in our portrayals of Islam and its adherents. With fear stalking the land, it’s easy for us to get caught up in sweeping generalizations, distortions, and myths like the following:
♦ All Muslims are the same. They are not. Islam varies enormously from one part of the world to another. It stretches from Morocco through the Middle East to Pakistan and India and down to Indonesia, which is the largest nation where Muslims predominate. Islam is growing fast in Europe and America, where it will soon be the second most practiced religion. The governments of these Islamic nations vary greatly, from strongly secular (Turkey) to strongly religious (Saudi Arabia). Several Muslim countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia—have had women prime ministers or presidents.
♦ Islam is a violent religion. It is unfair to brand the religion by the actions of extreme fringe groups, just as it would be unfair to assert that Christianity is a violent religion because some Christians bomb abortion clinics or Christian nations fought the Crusades and are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
♦ Islam does not tolerate other religions. In comparing religions, the temptation arises to contrast the best features of my religion with the worst features of someone else’s. A little study of history sheds a lot of light. The sad truth is that none of the three Abrahamic religions has an edge when it comes to tolerance. Christians have persecuted Jews and Muslims, Jews have persecuted Christians and Muslims, and Muslims have persecuted Christians and Jews. Today, however, some Islamic nations seem unwilling to allow access to other religions in the manner they seek for Muslims in other countries.
2. We should speak out for religious liberty for all. Just as Adventists promote religious liberty for our own people and for other Christians, so we should defend the rights of Muslims to practice their faith. Adventists should help to dispel the prejudices, distortions, and myths that surround Islam. If a Muslim woman chooses to cover her head, it is nothing to be made fun of. It is no stranger than the practice of Roman Catholic nuns or Greek Orthodox women who cover their heads.
3. Setting aside narrow feelings, we should pray that the Lord will help us to love Muslims.Not because they are our enemies, because they are not; but because we are all spiritual children of Abraham and ultimately children of the same heavenly Father.
As followers of Jesus Christ first of all, we cannot avoid it: Jesus calls upon us to love all peoples.
Do we have neighbors who are Muslim? Let us get to know them, take an interest in them, invite them for a meal, discuss our own common beliefs in the one God who created all, and in the soon return of Jesus. Does the young woman who attends us in the store wear a head scarf? Let us be pleasant to her and engage her in friendly conversation.
4. We will seek to engage leaders of Islam in conversation.The reality is that both their religion and ours occupy the same territory, since we are world religions. We should seek to know them better and help them to know what we believe and stand for.
Recently I attended a conference that in itself dispelled some of the current myths associated with Islam. The state of Qatar in the Persian Gulf sponsored an interfaith dialogue that brought together about 150 leaders and scholars from the three Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The conference, focused on the theme “Spiritual Values and World Peace,” was organized by the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies of Qatar University. Aisha Yousef Al-Mannai, dean of that college, led out in the planning and conduct of the dialogue. A person of fine intellect and engaging personality, Professor Aisha is a woman, and a courageous one. With representatives from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinians, Israel, America, and the United Kingdom around the same table, sparks were sure to fly—and they did!
Although men were in the majority at the dialogue, women were well represented. They entered into the discussions, presenting papers and chairing sessions. Several pled publicly with those of us from the West to help dispel the distortions concerning women and Islam that are in vogue in our home countries.
A concrete result of the conference was a declaration by His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of the State of Qatar, of the establishment of an International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, to be housed in Doha, Qatar. Its international advisory board is comprised of leaders and scholars from several countries and is drawn from the three Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
In times like these the cause of peace needs all the help it can find. And we Adventists, who are a people who renounce all forms of violence and who take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9), have a part to play. Let us reach out in love to our brothers and sisters, the spiritual children of Abraham—Muslims.
William G. Johnsson is assistant to the General Conference President for Interfaith Relations