Shining the light

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe … The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world (John 1:5-9).

As believers, we are called to be a light in the dark places. Unfortunately, though, interactions between Muslims and Christians tend to involve more heat than light. I know people who will happily engage in a debate but who refuse invitations to genuine discussions: they want to win, not to understand.

I have a book containing correspondence between Christians and Muslims, written during the first three centuries of Islam’s development. These letters reveal an amazing lack of understanding of what the other believes. In many ways it can be characterised as:

M: Our prophet is the last and greatest prophet.

C: Oh yeah, well, ours is the light of the world.

M: Oh yeah, well, so is ours. Ours is the light of creation.

C: Well, ours is the word of God.

M: No, he’s a word from God, and to obey the word of our prophet is to obey God himself. So he brings that final word. So there!

C: Well, ours is the Son of God.

M: Oh yuck, that’s a disgusting thought that God would have sex with a woman. Ours is beloved of God from all time.

You get the picture. And, in one form or another, with varying degrees of finesse, this “my prophet is bigger than your prophet” approach to witness has been utilised in much of the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. However, few in each community really know what the other believes. For example, when Christians defend the idea of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to Muslims, they don’t realise that Muslims understand the Trinity to mean “Father, Son and Mary”. And when the tenor of interactions is that of feeling attacked and needing to defend (on both sides), the result is conflict, not relationship.

Many expressions of Islam Persians, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Indonesians: these are all large populations that are mainly Muslim. Indeed in the new Pew Report on Islam in the World we see that most Muslims aren’t Arabs: “More than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Each Muslim community has its own flavour and expression of Islam. True, just as going to Catholic Mass or to McDonalds is fairly much the same the world over, Muslims can go to any Mosque in the world and feel at home in the ritual and prayer. But in an unfamiliar community, they may also find outlooks, beliefs and practices that astonish them. In Bangladesh, for example, there are hymns of praise to the prophet Muhammad, which traditionalists in the Middle East are appalled at. And in India there are Muslim holy shrines where people go to pray for children and healing, something which the traditionalists also oppose.

We do ourselves, our message and our Muslim neighbours a disservice when we assume that Islam is a monolithic whole. We need to get to know the individuals and their community, their beliefs, their outlook on the world and who they are in their setting. This will mean asking questions and being willing to listen and learn, and making ourselves available to spend time with them, including sharing meals and attending events together. Don’t be afraid to share the celebration of Christmas, as Muslims honour Jesus and are generally happy to celebrate his birth and share in the Bethlehem story. Similarly, prayer is an expected part of public and private life for Muslims. To offer to pray for your neighbours in their daily experience is usually warmly welcomed. In praying with Muslims we have seen people experiencing healing, peace in difficult times, and provision when it was needed. One man said, “Each time I came here I felt such peace. How could I not respond?”

Called to testify A Christian’s primary role in witness is just that: witness. We testify to what we have seen and heard. We’re not called primarily to argue against someone else’s faith, to counter opposing arguments. We’re called to say what we’ve experienced. We’re called to tell our story.

I have a friend in Bangladesh, whose life was turned around by joining a Sufi group (kind of like a charismatic group headed by saints within Islam); he went from a life of violence and alcohol to one of piety. He discusses Christianity with many people and hasn’t been at all convinced by any arguments.

There is one thing about Christianity, however, that gives him pause for thought: when he asks expatriate Christians, “So, what brought you to Bangladesh?” and they reply, “Because God told me to come”, that rattles his cage!

My friend would dearly love to hear the voice of God. He prays, he practises meditation and follows his saint, but he has never experienced God being with him. And that is the same for many Muslims: although they long to experience God, He is so great and powerful – and distant – that the idea of actually knowing Him, particularly as Father, and hearing from Him, is beyond what they can imagine.

Our witness is our story – are we willing to share it? How did we come to know Jesus? How does He relate to us today? What happens when we pray? Yes, we must know our Bibles, and yes, the more information we have on their faith and ours the better, but the heart of our witness is our story: our experience and our relationship with Jesus.

We are not called to combative oneupmanship; any discussion along the lines of “my prophet is bigger than your prophet” will be fraught with defensiveness and aggression. However, as we build relationships with Muslims, and start to share our story, our testimony, we will be making claims that challenge their beliefs. To say that “I prayed for my neighbour and he was healed” is to say “Jesus heals”. Our Muslim friend will be struck by the idea: “Wait a minute here – Jesus heals. But Muhammad doesn’t.” Similarly, to say “Jesus led me” is to say that Jesus is alive; for a Muslim, Muhammad is dead. We must let these comparisons arise naturally, in the course of our everyday interactions with Muslim friends: if we start to push them, then we will see walls raised very, very quickly. However, with gentle honesty and a simple telling of our ongoing story, we can be public about our faith in a way that expresses our love, and still allows the light of Christ to shine.

Colin Edwards is Team Leader of Interserve’s Urban Vision in the UK. 1