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» Islamic Dialogue on Campus
Islamic Dialogue on Campus
by David Schmidt
We are living in a new time. The Gulf War introduced many to the presence of the Arab world and the religion of Islam, not just in the Middle East, but on the campus itself. Muslims now number more than some of the various Christian denominations on campus. In the U.S. they are passing the Jews in total numbers (approximately 3 percent of the population).
On our campus I found myself in an interesting place during the Gulf War and the continuing peace negotiations in the Middle East. Jews and Muslims have difficulty speaking to one another on campus just as they do at the conference table. Over the years my contacts have reached out to both communities. Thus I often find that I may be the middle ground. As a Christian, I was educated to think of my faith as rooted in Judaism; I now find Muslims rooted in Judaism and Christianity. Unfortunately, I know more about my Jewish brothers and sisters than I do about my Muslim colleagues. In order to further the opportunities in my position, I need to establish an ongoing dialogue with the people of Islam.
During the past two years I have participated in a monthly discussion group of Christians and Muslims. It is out of that experience that I find myself entering a new arena of conversation with other Christians, Jews and humanists. The following are some of my reflections out of this dynamic.
One of the first things I needed to do was to clarify my stance in this dialogue. My youthful training said I should seek to convert any "heathens" to Christianity. While such an "exclusivist" position that Christ is the only way to God is commonly held, Muslims and Jews often accept an "inclusivist" position that there is truth in other religious traditions while holding on to one's own. On the campus, the academic posture is one of pluralism, accepting all religions as similar in value. It is very helpful to recognize the approach each person in the dialogue holds.
While pluralism is the espoused position for much of the academic community, many students come out of exclusivist church backgrounds and are still thinking in a dualistic mode that says there is one right answer and the rest are wrong. Hence, discussions on campus can take on mixed agendas. Even Jews and Muslims who outwardly espouse an inclusivist position are influenced by the dualistic mode of thinking. And many have experiences in their past which push them to more exclusivist positions. It is helpful for those of us promoting dialogue to recognize the position we come from as well as the dynamics of interaction present among participants from these various attitudes.
One of the first places those in dialogue will need to focus is the nature and authority of scripture. We are all people who appeal to revelation, whether it is in the Qur'an or the Torah or the Bible. As many of us have experienced the frustrations in conversations with Christians who have differing views of the authority of scripture, we will feel a sense of deja vu in many of the conversations with our Muslim sisters and brothers. Islam promotes a literal reading of the Qur'an and this leads Muslims to carry that style of reading to their reading of the Bible, and they do read the Bible, since it contains a record of prophets whom they acknowledge, e.g. Adam, Moses and Jesus. In our discussions it was very helpful to spend a couple of sessions explaining the various Christian approaches to scripture and seeking to come to grips with the Muslim approach. Even so, we still return to that input when later discussions become confused.
I think it is helpful for clarifying our Christian use of literary and historical criticism to discuss with Muslims their approach to the Haddith, the traditions and teachings of Muhammad apart from the Qur'an. They see the latter was passed on to us through the Prophet who served as a pipeline. It cannot be examined through the use of critical tools. The Haddith, however, can be and, in fact, is examined critically.
The Muslims challenged me, as a Christian, to clarify how I use scripture. They also confronted me on what elements of truth I might recognize in the Qur'an. Since they understand that the Qur'an does not offer new truth, but rather calls "the people of the book" back to the truth which has become distorted, it is hard for them to understand why some Christians refuse to see truth in the Qur'an. Our personal biases and those interpretations of our scriptures which we have accepted over the years will need to be acknowledged and reexamined if we are to have fruitful exchange.
Behind this discussion is the issue of worldviews. Much of Christian tradition has arisen out of Greek and later European philosophic and linguistic paradigms. On the other hand Islam arises from a Middle-Eastern and Arabic paradigm. In modern theology (especially metaphoric), Christians have been reexamining the impact of early neo-platonic philosophy and the greco-roman world on our systematics and dogmatics. Experience in this realm helps us if we are to have fruitful dialogue with Islam. Many times I would find myself responding to a Muslim brother or sister with explanations of post-New Testament developments. We would start out with generally similar views while talking about the Bible; we parted company when later traditions enter the discussion. I experienced some frustration with my Muslim colleagues when I would be willing to separate biblical text from later developments, but would not get a similar willingness from them. That is due in part to our differing worldviews which govern our thinking.
Other issues which we have found to be important for our discussions include the nature (oneness) of God, the role of prophet, the human situation and its related issues of the reason for the death of Jesus and original sin and salvation, and the principles of Islam and Christianity. Of these the concept of God seems most troubling to my Muslim friends. It is hard for us to explain the
Trinity, but it is even harder for them to grasp how we can claim we have only one God. In part this is due to our loose use of language about the Trinity. In part it comes from the differing paradigms out of which we work.
The death of Jesus and its relationship to personal salvation is very troubling to them. Here is a point where it is important to recognize a tendency for Muslims to bring material beyond the Qur'an into the picture without always identifying such. One source is the Gospel of Barnabas, which is a questionable writing (probably of rather recent vintage) which many see as authentic. When we look at the Qur'an alone, the challenge of Islam that Jesus did not die on the cross is not as strong as many Muslims make it. But many will not be able to separate this claim from what they have learned elsewhere to evaluate it as openly as many of us Christians would like. It is important to realize that the real issue for Muslims is whether or not Jesus needed to die for our sin. This idea is unacceptable to their view.
From a Christian viewpoint, I find it valuable to rethink the tenets of my faith in conversation with persons who share a deep regard for God and are living according to the will of God. Once I got past false ideas that I had accepted in the past, such as Muhammad being their God (truly a sacrilege to them) and identifying some of our beliefs which we hold in common, e.g. monotheism and Jesus as messiah, I found myself looking forward to our discussions.
In addition to developing an ongoing dialogue, I have found two other approaches to be workable on campus. One is to return to the old PBS Time/Life series, "The Long Search," and to invite representatives of the religious groups being portrayed in a given program to share in the discussion following the film. This might be an agreeable way to begin interaction. A second format which we have used is to hold a panel discussion somewhat in a Donahue style. Both times, we got the technical services department to videotape the program for future use in classes. The panel discussion introduced the audience to similarities and differences, and the audience questions stimulate further interest for later events. This format was set up by inviting a representative from various religions on campus to come to a joint planning meeting. That way all had input into the program.
Once there is some interaction and trust developing, it is enjoyable to have a gathering of Christians and Muslims to break the fast of the month of Ramadan. This can be a time of introducing traditional Muslim foods and explanations of one of the important observances of Islam.
1. Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and People of Other Faiths, The Risk Book Series, World Council of Churches. Offers an introduction to the dialogue from the viewpoint of the Bible. Written for the World Student Christian Federation.
2. Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, Orbis Press. Provides a discussion of the various approaches made by Christians to other religions. It helps one see the issues faced in such dialogues.
3. Hans Kung, et at, Christianity and the World Religions:Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Doubleday. Offers alternating chapters between a spokesperson for another faith and Kung. A good study resource.
4. Muslim-Christian Research Group, The Challenge of the Scriptures, The Bible and the Quran, Orbis Press. Report from a dialogue in France; sees value in both scriptures.
5. R. Marston Speight, Christian-Muslim Relations: An Introduction for Christians in the United States of America, National Council of Churches of Christ. Includes an appendix listing of resources and sources.
6. R ' Marston Speight, God is One: The Way of Islam, Friendship Press. A sensitive presentation that many churches used for study in 1990. There is a study guide.
7.Any of the books by Bishop Kenneth Cragg on Islam. He has made dialogue a lifetime work. I personally like 'Abdullah Yusuf' Ali, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary, Amana Corporation. A source for study of the Qur'an.
8. PBS-Time/Life,"The Long Search" was available to us through inter-library loan.
David Schmidt is chaplain of the Wesley Foundation and director of United Campus Ministries of Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois.
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