by Bruce Bradshaw
We can’t impose our Western ideas of Christian faithfulness on Islamic culture. Rather, we must find ways to express our Christian integrity within Islamic culture.
"I became a Christian while living in Eastern Europe," a student once confessed to me.
"How did that happen?" I asked him.
"I stopped praying. I ate pork and drank wine," he said.
"You did not become a Christian," I told him. "You stopped being a Muslim.
"There’s no difference," he retorted. "When a man falls from Islam he becomes a Christian."
In the ensuing discussion we sorted out the most serious challenge to Christians who are seeking to penetrate Islam with the gospel of Jesus Christ: how to demonstrate the spiritual validity of Christianity. To do so, we must develop relationships with Muslims that are based on integrity and respect. Muslims do not accept the faith of people for whom they have no respect, or from whom they receive no respect.
The different approaches to spirituality in Islam and Christianity seriously impede relationships. Whereas Islamic spirituality is expressed externally and publicly, Christian spiritual disciplines are more private and internal. Christians are told to pray where only God can see them; Muslims are comfortable praying in airplanes and on street corners. Christians emphasize pure hearts and minds in their worship; Muslims wash their hands and feet to prepare for worship. Christians let their fasting be known only to God; Muslims corporately fast during daylight hours during Ramadan.
Since they can’t distinguish between internal spiritual development and spiritual neglect, Muslims think Christianity has no spiritual validity. In some Islamic societies, Muslim apostates, like my student, are thought to be Christians.
In light of these differences and misunderstandings, Christians find it hard to demonstrate their spiritual integrity. We can’t impose our Western ideas of Christian faithfulness on Islamic culture. Rather, we must find ways to express our Christian integrity within Islamic culture.
For example, some Christians have thought about setting aside a special period for fasting. Others have considered how to make their prayers more public. The possibility of Islamicizing Christian worship has been debated. Let me suggest some other avenues in Islamic culture that lend themselves to the expression of Christian spiritual discipline: (1) giving to the poor; (2) showing hospitality; (3) honoring Abraham for his faithfulness.
GIVING TO ALL WHO ASK
On an examination I once asked my Muslim students whether giving money to beggars is an "exchange." Surprisingly, most of them answered yes. I explained that an exchange connotes reciprocity. Giving to beggars is not reciprocal. They protested that giving to beggars brings Allah’s blessing in exchange. That’s why they give. They were satisfied when I concluded that beggars are "brokers of blessing."
I went on to explain that as a Christian I give because God has given to me, not to get a blessing, but because I have received one. Muslims can’t understand this motivation of Christian giving.
However, beggars trouble Christians. Our culture tends to think of beggars as irresponsible and that giving them money only enforces their irresponsibility and keeps them from gainful employment. Therefore, because we want to be good stewards and a help to society, generally we don’t give to beggars. Instead, we donate to charities that try to reclaim beggars.
In our culture, this is fairly sound reasoning. But it doesn’t work to try to impose our logic on Muslims. Most beggars in their culture aren’t touched by charitable institutions. Begging is their livelihood. Giving to people through an institution is foreign to Muslims. Giving to beggars, one of the five pillars of Islam and a spiritual obligation for every Muslim, is personal. So, even though we may give to institutions, we are thought to be neglecting a spiritual obligation, especially in light of our relative wealth.
Beggars in Islamic societies challenge Christians to pay closer attention to what Jesus said: "Give to everyone who asks you" (Lk. 6:30). They are part of the fabric of society. They do not carry the stigma we assign them in Western culture. They give us opportunities to share, with our Muslim friends, our motivation for deeds of love and charity.
After a meal of freshly killed chicken, our Muslim host introduced us to his family. His son, having been severely malnourished, suffered from diarrhea. My wife made oral rehydration solution for him while I reflected on the value of hospitality. A popular proverb says: "The daughters of the inhospitable man will never marry." Not because of who they are, but because no one wants to marry into a dishonorable family.
Hospitality is the primary way Muslims establish, express, and defend their honor and esteem. A man will sacrifice his only animal, or go into debt to entertain a guest. The financial cost is incidental to his sense of honor. Our host did not hesitate to serve us a high protein meal, even though his son suffered protein deficiency. He had to bolster his honor.
Somehow, the strong biblical emphasis on hospitality has never gripped so-called Christian, Western culture. Our neglect of hospitality is a major roadblock to reaching Muslims with the gospel. Not only do we ignore a major theme of both Islam and Christianity, we also lose the chance to share the Christian motive for being hospitable, a motive that Muslims can appreciate, namely, that we express honor to God by sharing our blessings with other people.
Our hospitality is not meant to bring honor to ourselves. Rather, we want to be gracious to other people because God has been gracious to us. As a Christian duty, hospitality is included with caring for our families, worshiping, praying, reading our Bibles, and so on.
When you try to build friendships with Muslims, invariably you are invited to religious and cultural celebrations. One of them, El-Adha, more than other Islamic celebrations, gives Christians a chance to share their hope in Jesus Christ.
This celebration consists of the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb or goat to acknowledge God’s mercy in providing Abraham, their spiritual ancestor, with a sacrificial lamb in lieu of his son. The sacrifice serves as a propitiation for sin, an acknowledgement of God’s mercy, and a commemoration of Abraham’s faithfulness.
Our Christian esteem for Abraham as our spiritual ancestor gives us significant credibility with Muslims on the day of Idd El-Adha. With full integrity, we can share the Islamic reverence for Abraham’s faithfulness. Of course, we differ over which son Abraham was to sacrificeâ€”Muslims believing he was Ishmael and Christians believing he was Isaacâ€”but in the light of what Abraham means to us, this difference is not critical.
The important issue to communicate to Muslims is our belief that the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, upon which the Islamic sacrificial system is based, were unable to cleanse from sin. They were periodic reminders of the need for an ultimate sacrifice that could cleanse from sin. The ultimate sacrifice was Jesus Christ.
My last celebration of Idd El-Adha, coming on Sunday, challenged my commitment to show the spiritual integrity of my faith. I had to choose between church and the celebration. Since it comes only once a year, and because I valued the relationship with the person who invited me, I chose the celebration.
Shortly after starting a two-hour journey through the desert to the village where the celebration was held, I was convicted that I had made the wrong choice. I chose not to worship so I could go to an event where worship was highly valued.
I recalled an incident during President Carter’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 1978. As preparations for his arrival were being made at Riyadh airport, the call to prayer went up. All the band members dropped to their knees right on the tarmac for their prayers. The scene made a bizarre picture in U.S. newspapers, with men and trombones prostrate together, but it didn’t strike the Saudis as odd. It was time for prayer, so they prayed.
I pondered my dilemma. After driving 45 minutes, I stopped the car and reminded my passenger that this was my day of worship. I told him that God was calling me to return to my church. He agreed that obeying God’s call was the right thing to do, even though it meant being three hours late for the celebration.
Of course, when the guest of honor shows up three hours late, some explanation must be given. My host told his family what had happened and they listened intently. Everyone was satisfied that responding to God’s call was the supreme value of our lives.
As we ate our meal of goat meat, bananas, and rice from a common platter, we talked about Abraham’s faith and my faith in Jesus Christ. Afterwards, I met the village religious leaders. We discussed our faith and developed greater respect for each other. We agreed that in worshipping the same God and in honoring the same spiritual ancestorâ€”Abrahamâ€”we were closer to each other than past and present hostilities might lead us to think.
However, we are separated by our Christian belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in reconciling us to God. Muslims cling to Abraham’s temporal sacrifice, while Christians enjoy the eternal benefits of Christ’s sacrifice.
Bridging the gap is the greatest missionary challenge of the church. It’s a challenge that requires us to penetrate Muslim culture, to gain their respect, and to give a reason for the hope that is in us.
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