The UK Times newspaper last autumn introduced its readers to the use of taweez in popular Sufi Sunni Islam. Why? Because it was reporting on the conviction of a Salafi for murdering an imam who practised this form of Islam.
The variety of Islam
Times readers, already familiar with terms like Sunni and Shi’a, Sufi and Salafi, were being introduced to yet another sort of Islam that is practiced by 41% of Pakistanis and 26% of Bangladeshis. How, I wonder, will they integrate this information into the categories of ‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’ Islam that the media have been using hitherto? And how do Christians integrate the variety of Islam into their worldviews?
Over the four and a half decades since I perceived God’s concern for Muslims, I have heard many discussions about how Christian mission should be directed. We should focus on ‘folk’ Islam—on the huge percentage of those who use taweez and whose lives are dominated by beliefs in jinn. We should focus on service—to abused women, to minorities suffering from racism and to people in poverty. We should focus on apologetics, on polemics, on dialogue, on co-existence . . . or maybe on political concerns. Perhaps Christians should be at the forefront of countering ISIS-type terrorism.
How should we view Islam?
Underlying such discussions are questions about how we should view Islam, and these are echoed in the polarized responses to Muslims that are tearing apart today’s evangelical world. I think that the major problem is that we do not know how to fit the variety of Islam into our thought categories. As the secular world struggles to add the world of taweez into its understanding of ‘religion’, so Christians struggle to find room for Islam in their understanding of the world; so we choose existing categories and focus on those Muslims who fit them. Our teachers and preachers urgently need a way of reading the Bible that enables the whole church to relate to the whole variety of Islam and of Muslims.
Put this way, we see that the challenge is broader: Islam may be a special case, but we need a biblical worldview that gives a framework for relating to all peoples of all faiths. My book, The Bible and Other Faiths, seeks to provide just that: a way of reading the Bible that so takes into account the religious world ‘behind’ the biblical texts that it helps us to make sense of our own religious world. My recent book, Thinking Biblically about Islam, deals with the special case of Islam.
Thinking Biblically about Islam develops two biblical frameworks for thought, and applies them in two ways:
The biblical frameworks deal, first, with developing a view of humanity that includes Muslims and, second, with developing a way of understanding Islam. The two are related, because ‘Islam’ is practised by human beings—which is, of course, why it displays such variety.
The applications ask, first, how we might think about various aspects of Islam—the Qur’an, Muhammad, the Umma, and Shari‘a—and, second, how our biblical studies might transform us in our relationships with Muslim people.
The double two-fold analysis reflects a tension that underlies much of the polarization of Christian responses to Islam: that we are trying to understand Islam as a system that post-dates Jesus Christ and sees itself as superseding Christianity, and also trying to relate to the huge proportion of human beings who are Muslims. On the one hand, many Christians feel that Islam should never have come into existence, and that Muslims are intruders in their world. On the other hand, many Christians live in places where they meet Muslims every day, and have Muslims as friends and colleagues and family members whom they love.
Here is a ‘taster’ of the two biblical frameworks:
The framework for a view of humanity that includes Muslims
This is developed from Genesis 4-11. It is a standard analysis of text as a chiasm(the Greek capital chi looks like X)—that is, it has a shape ABCB’A’ or ABA’ or ABCDC’B’A’ etc. The first and last elements ‘match’ as they set themes and subjects, and may repeat words. The central element is the heart of the matter. The intermediate elements ‘match’ (here, they are both genealogies) and tell you how the whole argument sticks together. Hence the analysis matches Genesis 4 and 11, Genesis 5 and 10, and then sees Genesis 6-9 as central.
From Genesis 1-3, we learn that all human beings, including Muslims, are both made in the image of God and fallen. Genesis 4-11 gives an analysis of a religious fallen world that can be read as a chiasm. The beginning and the end deal with individual and societal religion; the centre point is the flood story; and in between come the genealogies that are so important to the whole structure of Genesis:
A Chapter 4: Human beings outside Eden seek to approach God through a religious act. It is not clear why one is accepted and another is rejected, but it is clear that this results in violence.
B Chapter 5: Humans have a common origin, and all (except Enoch who points to a hope of life) share in the genealogy of death.
C Chapters 6-9: God’s response to spreading violence is one of anger and pain (6:6). The flood story is read as offering two possible ways for God to deal with the evil—the judgment of the flood, and the covenant commitment that follows Noah’s sacrifice. The latter indicates God’s preference for the duration of history.
B’ Chapter 10: Human societies have a common origin, and are under the providential life-giving hand of God.
A’ Chapter 11: There is a human tendency to use religion to propagate a particular people’s power and territory. This is dangerous religion, which God will judge in order to limit the resulting evil.
This analysis provides some simple but powerful categories for thinking about Sunniand Shi’a, about Sufi and Salafi, and about users of taweez and ISIS supporters who kill idolaters.
A: Individual religion. We can understand all Muslims as people trying to approach God, whether with Abel-like or with Cain-like motivations. We can expect violent religious quarrels to arise over questions of what pleases God.
So we can expect schisms like those between the Sunni and the Shi’a. However, we can also expect some of the Sufis, who seek the face of God as a lover seeks the beloved, to be ‘Abel’s’ of the Muslim world. The story makes us ask how far we can judge which of the ISIS supporters who sacrifice their own lives are like Cain, and which are like Abel.
A’: Societal religion. We can understand the various political dimensions of Islam as manifestations of a normal human tendency to fuse religion, ethnicity and power.We can be sure that, where this fusion builds exploitative power structures that are against God, he will limit the damage that they do to his good creation.
B and B’: Genealogies. All this is the shared human condition. Muslims are not intruders in our world: we are all part of God’s world. One implication is that we can expect the Genesis patterns among Christians as well as among Muslims. Christians, too, can argue over who is acceptable to God. Christians, too, can fight and kill each other. Christians, too, can use religion to build empires.
C: At the heart of it all is the problem of evil. I do not mean here the question of the origin of evil, although the book does explore some key differences between Muslim and Christian views on the subject through a study of the Adam stories in the Qur’an and the Bible. Rather, the big question raised by the Genesis Noah story is how God deals with evil, and that has implications for how human beings should deal with evil in themselves and in others.
This suggests a key to biblically based thinking about the varieties of Islam: we can ask what these particular Muslims see as evil, and how they are trying to deal with it. Take, for example, the taweezusers’ and ISIS supporters’ polarization. Taweez users focus on evils that affect them and their families in their everyday lives; they deal with this through ritual and, often, through trying to control the jinn whom they see as responsible for their troubles. ISIS supporters focus more on political evils, which they see as caused by wrong worship; they often deal with them by trying to destroy the causes.
I hope that the Christian reader is by now sharing something of the pain as well as the anger in the heart of God (Gen 6:6). I hope, too, that, like the One whom we serve, that reader is determined to prefer the way of sacrifice and covenant commitment to the way of judgement in response to evil. That takes us to Jesus and His cross, and to the blood which cries out so much louder than that of the martyr, Abel. Perhaps our biggest pain is that that the cross and the blood is missing from Islamic thinking, and so not considered by either taweez users or ISIS supporters in their struggles with evil. That takes us to the heart of the second analytical framework.
The framework for understanding Islam
This is developed from the transfiguration. Writing the book has led me to realise the centrality of the transfiguration to the synoptic gospels; and John’s Gospel can be read as an exegesis of the transfiguration.
The questions to which the transfiguration is the answer are Islamic questions: How does Jesus relate to the previous prophets? What does it mean that he is Messiah? How do we deal with the scandal of His insistence that he will be shamefully killed?
Up to this point, the Gospels have been largely in harmony with the qur’anic view of Jesus; and the Qur’an raises the very questions that the Gospels raise. However, Muslims answer them differently. They deny the crucifixion and put Jesus on the same level as all the other prophets. In effect, they reverse the transfiguration and then develop a prophetic-legal tradition built on a figure who combines the law-giving community-founding paradigm of Moses with the law-enforcing monotheistic zeal of Elijah.
Such observations provoke a re-reading of the legal and prophetic paradigms represented by Moses and Elijah, not least as ways of dealing with the evils of human sinfulness. On the one hand, how can the biblical material help us to appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of Islam? On the other hand, why is it that the biblical accounts of these prophets find their fulfilment in the cross of Christ rather than in the Medina of Muhammad?
Hence, an understanding of the purpose and nature, riches and limitations of biblical law and prophethood offers some categories for thinking about Islam; and it opens a way of reading the New Testament that sheds light on how and why it holds such good news for Muslims. From cover to cover, the Bible speaks into the world of Islam, and into the bewilderment of secular and Christian people who are struggling to understand it.
What is the implication for evangelical leaders? Let us seriously put the Bible ‘in conversation with’ Islamic thinking and with Muslim people, and let us preach the whole counsel of God into our hurting world.
Muslims are still waiting for the coming of Jesus and other messianic figures, to deal finally with evil by destroying the wicked and rescuing the good. As Christians, too, wait for the final judgment, what difference does it make to our preaching and to our lives that the Messiah has already come, and has dealt with evil on the cross? The cross is the acceptable sacrifice available for the Cain’s as well as for the Abel’s; it challenges all fusions of religion and power, and it brings together, once and for all, the judgment that cleanses and the pain that forgives. How can we make that cross the basis of all our responses to Islam?