Sunday, 29 May 2016

How Christians Can 'Learn the Language' of Islam

Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve done a lot of travelling in Africa, the Middle East, and all around Europe. Needless to say, this necessitated navigating my way through language barriers.

One of my personal habits when I was travelling was to begin by learning how to say one phrase:

‘I don’t speak (insert language).’

Over the years I learned how to say it in French, Polish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, German, Spanish, and Catalan.

Even in places where everyone assured me that no one would speak English with me (like France), I found that starting a conversation with, say, a shopkeeper or  taxi driver with that phrase in their language got much better results than simply powering ahead in English.

Beyond that simple beginning, it was then a matter of daily adding to your vocabulary through interaction with the locals. I took to keeping a small notebook with me and writing down new vocabulary and phrases as they came up.

‘How do you say, “How much is this”?’

‘How do you say “Thank you”?’

‘What’s your word for “towel”?’

‘Do I use the same word if I’m speaking to a man or a woman?’

At bottom, you can always safely assume that there is a corresponding word or concept in the local language for the word or concept in yours; with a little bit of effort and interaction, you’ll figure out what it is.

I think the same goes for the broader task of approaching another culture or religion. As a theologian with experience working in the field of post-conflict reconciliation, I’ve been particularly interested for some time in the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the events of 11 September 2001, the rise of al-Qa'ida and ISIS and their oppression and massacres of religious minorities, the collapse of the Arab Spring and subsequent wars in Syria and Yemen, and the refugees desperate to reach stable countries in the Americas and Europe have all led to a great deal of tension and hostility between members of both faiths.

Many in the media and politics strenuously tell us that we must fear Muslims in our midst, and two terms keep being invoked to justify that fear:

jihād and sharīʿah.

Those terms leave so many Christians utterly freaked out, which is a real pity. Neither term appears in Christianity… But the ideas do; they’re just referred to differently.

Let’s look at jihād. In Arabic, ‘jihād’ means ‘striving’, ‘applying oneself’, ‘struggling’, ‘persevering’, and therefore can have violent or nonviolent connotations. It appears frequently in the Qur'an, most often to refer to the act of striving to serve the purposes of God on this earth (referred to as the ‘greater jihād’). Nevertheless, it can also refer to armed struggle against wrong doers and enemies of Islam (the ‘lesser jihād’).

Christian doctrine and practice has several similar concepts. As someone who spent years living and working within Evangelical and charismatic Christians, I was constantly hearing about 'taking our cities for God'; 'having dominion over every thought’; 'building a Christ-centered society'; 'spiritual warfare'; and 'making war in the heavenlies'.

Also, in wake of recent US wars in the Middle East, even the militant aspects of jihād have cropped up in some expressions of right-wing Christianity, which has gloried in images of soldiers praying blessings on their ordnance…

  And each other…                                                         

Now, let’s look at Sharīʿah. ‘Sharīʿah’ refers to the moral and religious legal system within Islam, derived both from the text of the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In some predominantly-Muslim countries, Sharīʿah directly informs the legal system completely or in part; in others it runs in parallel to the secular code, but carries no legal weight.

Of course, Christianity has its own religious code of law and practice attached to it that may or may not be part of the secular legal code.

For example, there’s no law in the US, the UK, or Ireland prohibiting two unmarried consenting 30 year-olds from engaging in sexual relations; many Christians from a variety of denominations, however, would see it as a serious deviation from the biblical text and from Christian tradition, would insist that those two people get married first, and might ostracize them from their faith community if they didn't;

Even though the state would be satisfied with them going down to a court house, many Christians would see that as a poor substitute to a sacred ceremony performed by a pastor or priest in a church, and might even ostracize them from their faith community if they didn't have a church-sanctioned ceremony;

There’d be no law against serving alcohol after the service, but many Christians- citing the Bible- would frown; some churches wouldn’t allow the alcohol to be served on their premises. They might even ostracize the young couple for having alcohol in their home; the civil authorities would have no such problems with it;

The newlyweds might decide to use contraception for the first few years of their marriage; many conservative Catholics would utterly oppose them, citing the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae vitae. But no legal action would be taken against the couple by the secular authorities, no matter how much those more dogmatic Catholics might wish it.

In all these examples we see the mixing of secular law and religious law in the lived experience of devout Christians, who wouldn’t use the Arabic term ‘sharīʿah’, even though the principles of both are identical.

There are a lot of Christians out there- like many Muslims- who would like to see their religious traditions made the law of the land, applicable to all, Christian or not; there are many more Christians- like many Muslims- who are embarrassed and appalled at the very idea. Many Irish people remember growing up in ‘Holy, Catholic Ireland’, where Christian Catholic doctrine directly informed the legal code of all citizens, regardless of whether they were Catholic or not. Ask any Dublin Protestant of a certain age about trying to buy condoms or Hollywood film magazines in the 50’s…  

The point is this: it’s time for Christians to start learning the ‘language’ of Islam, humbly and respectfully, in all its complexity and nuance.

We’ll need to begin the process of figuring out how Islamic ideas and practices correspond to ones in our own faith.

We might find out that our ‘languages’ aren’t all that different; that we share many words, concepts, opinions, concerns, and aspirations.

If nothing else, we’ll probably all be a lot less freaked out…


  1. I had a conversation some years ago with a Muslim in the Eugene area (I was visiting their mosque). The topic of jihad came up and I brought up a parallel to see if my understanding was correct. What I queried if the US was a predominantly Muslim country, wouldn't Alcoholics Anonymous be an important jihadi group. If his response were a cartoon there would have been a light bulb above his head. It's really that simple; AA helps its members deal with the "demons" of addiction. It's really that simple. Jihad, the higher jihad is about the daily struggles of life with being a good person in a world that doesn't always make that easy.

    1. That's a really good analogy. Thanks for that:-)