(written June 2015)
People, in general, like things simple. We like to understand and comprehend things.
We don’t like complication. We abhor things we cannot understand. Confusing things, things we cannot grasp, things we cannot fathom or perceive, well, they bother us, make us uncomfortable.
So then, when we, who live in a Judaeo-Christian culture, look to the Middle East, a Qur’anic based culture, we can be bemused, frustrated, bewildered, puzzled, mystified.
The natural, human tendency is to see people as a version of us. That which is the foundation of my life, of the way I see, understand and comprehend the world, is the same for all people. I make this assumption of the people living in the Muslim world, and then, I am baffled by their actions, reactions and proclamations.
Another tendency we can face is to simplify; boil down what we perceive as the essential elements and to render things into black and white – grey is bad, grey complicates, simple black and white is far more desirable. This simplifies our life considerably. It makes it easier to understand what is happening and easier for us to communicate what we think is happening and why.
The problem is, it is more a caricature than reality and in the guise of giving understanding, it only provides a profound basis of misunderstanding.
Unfortunately for us, both approaches are flawed, deficient and ultimately, are harmful.
So, what is the reality, what is the true situation we see in the Middle East?
Well, it is complex. The situation is varied, it is a kaleidoscope, it is a mosaic and it is in flux – it is constantly changing. The changing maybe not be fast, but the state of affairs is not fixed, it is not set and it isn’t fully what it once was…nor what it will be….
There is no short-cut or easy answer. Yes, there are always things which are generally true in a very broad brush sense. But, when ‘broad brush’ truisms are applied to us individually, we immediately object and quantify and declare where there are differences, and for us significant differences. We don’t like a board brush approach being applied to us, nor does it really work when we apply it to others. It is a general, fuzzy guide.
If this wasn’t enough, there is another hinderance to understanding.
Like tends to attract like, people of the same outlook or opinion on a matter tend to congregate together. If everyone we relate to reflects the same basic view and assumptions, we can begin to believe either that everyone thinks like this, or the majority thinks like this, or, in a pinch, all the ‘right thinking’ people think like this. This is true, especially in the Protestant churches – the First Baptist with the First Baptist, the Pentecostal with the Pentecostal and so on…. Likewise it is true when we think in more prosaic terms, whether ‘global warming’ or ‘end times’ or ‘the birth place of a prominent world leader’ or any other topic of discussion… Speaking with people who agree with the shared basic premise only tends to reinforce that premise – if no one challenges, it becomes a given and as a ‘given’ it is sacrosanct, and at the same time it is parochial, limited and unrecognised as such.
So, when we come to the topic of Islam, or what it means to be a Muslim, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We are on the outside looking in and we have a foreign reference point. We do not share a common point from which to commence our discussion. It is easy to latch onto certain distinctives, expressions, actions or other, outward manifestations and conclude that that is the sum and total of what it all means.
Bizarrely, we ignore the vast discrepancy within our own faith; we act as if we are partners in a unified monolith. However, when we use the word “Christian” what do we mean, and what do people in our culture understand? Even in a historically ‘Christian’ country you will encounter quite divergent ideas as to what the term ‘Christian’ means. If we narrow the field somewhat, and ask our fellow “Christians” what we mean when we say “evangelical” or “Bible believing”, we still have a vast divergence of opinion on who is and who isn’t included in such a description – who we declare to be in the Family of God, and those we feel that ‘may’ be in the Family of God and others, we have declared are most definitely not in said family.
Should it surprise us, therefore, that the Great Monolith Religion, that touts its unity and oneness is also subject to a wide range of views, understandings, applications and expressions.
We may like to simplify our understanding of it. We may labour to break it down into its larger distinct divisions – Sunni and Shi’ite.
But this rather simplistic approach is equivalent to dividing the Christian faith into two divisions, Roman Catholics and Protestants (forgetting the existence of the various forms of Orthodox and the uncountable number that Protestants divide themselves into). As inadequate as that broad division is for our faith, so too, dividing Islam into two constituent parts is equally inadequate.
Just as someone meets a few “Christians” and forms a view on who they are, what they believe and what they value, they may miss the true meaning, or at the least have a silted, one sided, unbalanced view of our faith, or maybe more to the point, my faith. So too, if we base our view of Muslims upon a few “Muslims” that we may have met or know. Our view of them, and by extension, of the Muslim faith will be silted, one sided, unbalanced or maybe more to the point, a false understanding of what Muslims actually believe and who they are.
There is no easy answer. There is no short-cut.
Books and reports and discussions among people of our social-cultural background fall into the trap expressed above, we tend to reinforce our own interpretations, bias, prejudice and assumptions.
How do we attain a fair, balanced understanding of what Muslims truly believe?
Well, how would I hope that a Muslim would come to a fair and balanced understanding of what I truly believe?
I dare say the answer of the second question above will be the same answer to the first.
Leaflets, brochures, video, teaching, preaching may all have their place, but for someone to know what I believe, they must know me. Not just the ‘me’ I want to show and project and declare, but the ‘me’ when I am working and I am under stress and things go wrong, or when I am ill or when things are profoundly disappointing – it is not by a life full of blessings and lack of problems and full health and abundant wealth, but by the character of Christ shining through me in the rough and tumble of normal, everyday life. It is really only then that the Grace of God, the Power of the Spirit, the Reality of the New Birth, the Changed Man can be seen and then truly declare not just what I believe, but the Power of the Good News to all mankind expressed by God in me.
If someone in the west meets a Muslim, at work, in the park, a neighbour, they need to meet a human being and learn from them who they are. It is in a relationship that they will learn what their Muslim neighbour believes ‘intellectually’ (what they say) and what they ‘really’ believe in their actions, reactions and choices that they make.
It is also in this way they will learn what you believe ‘intellectually’ (what you say) and what you ‘really’ believe by your actions, reactions and the choices you make.
Unfortunately, often we have a well meaning gap between what we declare and how we comport ourselves. For example some people declare, “I believe we are living on the threshold of the End Times” or even “in the End Times”. But the life they live, the choices they make, the holiday plans they make, the retirement pension they invest in, the new High Definition, widescreen telly they just purchased demonstrate what they, fundamentally, practically believe.
Let me quickly hasten to clarify, there is nothing wrong with any of the choices and actions described above except in relation to their declared belief – if you don’t join the crowd in the sub-group we live in, which makes declarations of “we are in the End Times” a cultural expectation, and say nothing about it, then at least the life and declarations are not in conflict.
This is not a statement about the End Times, whether we are past the threshold or whether we want to rest in the “no man knows the day or the hour”, this is a statement about what we declare, state, teach and what our lives proclaim. What we say needs to be validated by how we live and the values our choices express, rather than being incongruous and contrary to what we often so confidently proclaim.
We may live in a country that is 99% Muslim, but that doesn’t make it a uniformity. Yes, of course there will be a segment of society that cleaves to the more extreme interpretation on Islam, but the society is far more complex than a division into one, two, three, a hundred or more groups. It isn’t that easy. It is acutely more convoluted than that.
You can take it as a general given’ that the bulk of people will hold to an Islamic point of view. We need to recognise that although it may not make sense to us, it may not add up for us, we may be confounded by some aspects and outright reject other facets, we need to know this – that for the people living here, raised here, taught here, it will be complete, whole and, in their minds totally reasonable and logical understanding and framework for living in this world You will not agree with a lot of what they say, but, for them, it all fits together and explains all of life around them.
Like you and me, they have hopes, aspirations, concerns and fears. Many despair of lying, cheating and such behaviour and strive for the good, the right, the wholesome in life.
People are individuals and need to be seen as the unique, one-of-a-kind person they are in the sight of God. Rather than prejudge and hence prejudice our interactions, let people declare themselves, not only in what they say, but in how they live.
This is the challenge, this is the goal, wherever we are found, whatever our activities amongst the people we find ourselves surrounded by.
I suppose I am advocating an abandonment of the simplistic, black and white view of the Islamic world – abandoning the fear-mongering media, the sensationalist press, the vested interest groups that have their own private agenda, and looking at the world through the eyes of God our Father who so loved the world – the whole world, all of it, that He gave his only Son…..
Let us leave off the irrational fear that seems to grip many, even in the Family of God. Let us ensure that our communications inspire love and good deeds rather than foster, support and contribute to fear and anxiety.
Let us always remember where we were and the state of our heart and lives when God called us who were darkness into His Light, especially as we look at people from a different culture, different understanding of the world to us.
Let us always remember that words of our Lord to “love our enemies” to pray for them and yes, to do good to them.
Finally, trust in Sovereign God – in all times, situations regardless of the news and the panic around us.
We are light and we are salt in this world – so said Jesus our Lord.