For the past sixteen years, the Middle East Consultation (MEC) has endeavored to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East. MEC 2019 – Thinking Biblically about Muslims, Muhammad & the Qur’an: Practical Implications for the Church Today delves into the practically grounded, and yet biblically faithful understanding of Muslims, Muhammad, and the Quran, which guides the church in its ministry towards others. Each day we heard from reflective practitioners, scholars of Islam, and mission thinkers and discussed the topics of revelation, prophethood, salvation, and the spiritual realities underlying interfaith encounters.
Thinking Biblically about Islam
The consultation began with an introductory session stating that the most important issue facing the church today is thinking biblically about Islam. With historical and contemporary developments, the church has put dialogue with Muslims at the focal point of its mission. We learned that dialogue with Muslims must move from an intuitive emotional response to a thoughtful holistic response. Through understanding the interconnection between culture and religion in the Arab world, we come to know how to better interact with Muslims.
An Exploration into Islamic Origins
To help us start to set a framework for thinking about this year’s MEC theme on Islam, we explored the Christian perceptions of Islam in early Medieval Christian sources. We also learned about the traditional story of Muhammad’s life, how the Qur’an came into being and the nature of early Islam. While some Christians may respond to the challenges of historical-critical scholarship with triumphalism, using revisionist arguments in polemical dialogue, the attendees were encouraged to have more empathy when engaging with our Muslim neighbors.
Culture and Religion, Forms and Meanings
One of the central themes of the conference focused around culture and religion, and forms and meanings. Ones view of Islam inevitably hinges upon the approach to religion and culture, and specifically, the relationship between the two. After an in-depth look at both culture and religion, we were presented with two epistemological perspectives to consider when we look at Islam, a top-down or bottom-up approach. Evangelicals are familiar with top-down approaches where sacred texts and grand theories shape our understanding of Islam. The bottom-up, or anthropological approach to Islam focuses on Muslims as people in their diverse contexts. Both are needed as we seek to interpret Islam. Lastly, we were invited to look at the interplay between forms and meanings which was extremely interesting within the context of Christians from a Muslim background. Should a Muslim follower of Christ continue to pray in a mosque? Should they celebrate Ramadan with their families and to what extent? Questions like these all fall under ambiguity that lies in developing a view of Islam while seeking Christocentric clarity in our witness.
Contemplating the Qur’an
On the second day of the consultation, we addressed the question: How are we to make sense of the Qur’an? To answer this question, we were introduced to the history of the formation of the Qur’an according to Islamic tradition. Our attention was then turned to the story of Jonah in the Qur’an, surveying the common unconscious assumptions Christians have about the Qur’an. Using Jonah as an example, we explored how we could approach “biblical” prophetic narratives in the Qur’an. Consequently, we encountered some of the challenges that arise when Christians insist they have the correct doctrine of scripture, and this entreated us to consider that both Muslims and Christians can have a constructive conversation when we do not abandon our convictions, but we show grace to the other scripture as we do with our own.
On the third day of the consultation, we explored the prophethood of Muhammad and why it matters. One of the keynote speakers helped us navigate our understanding of Muhammad through the lens of history rather than the lens of faith held by Muslims. In Kerygmatic discourse, we can affirm Jesus without denigrating Muhammad. Then, attendees received a comparative theological reflection on the qur’anic and biblical concepts of prophethood. Even though Christians and Muslims define prophethood according to what each religion’s text says, it is disrespectful for Christians to denigrate Muhammad as a prophet defined by our own terms. The discussion of prophethood continued through a description of the use of land, power, and people to help us consider where we might fit Muhammad into a biblical view of the world.
Towards the end of the consultation, our focus shifted towards: What should we make of Muslims and salvation? We were presented with the claim that the typical paradigm of using exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism in our theology of religions fails to account for religious differences and the assumptions Christians and Muslims carry regarding salvation. To supplement this, we explored the implications of salvation as seen through the lens of a community that hosts three different groups of Christians from Muslim backgrounds. While assessing the common indicators of salvation among the different communities of Muslim background believers, we found that loving one’s enemies is the clear identity marker of a true Christ-follower.
Testing the Spirits
On our last day of the consultation, we explored the spiritual realities behind our ministries and interfaith interactions. We were first introduced to the Kerygmatic IMES Peace Building Initiatives including Khebz w Meleh in Lebanon and the wider MENA context and Friendship Network of Church and Mosque Goers. Through a narrative study of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Mark, we learned that the Holy Spirit is the powerful and empowering presence in the church. With guidance from the social sciences to aid in our discussion of spiritual realities, we were introduced to the experiences of Christians in the African context with African traditional religions (ATR) and Islam. The last keynote presentation turned our attention to three forms of evil influences in the Bible according to Ephesians 2:1-3 asserting a holistic response as we engage with Muslims, not to “spiritual stereotype” of the other, use military metaphors for mission, or think Christians are immune from potential oppressive spiritual realities.
Roundtable Conversations, Breakout Sessions, the Listener’s Team and Panel Discussions
One of the most helpful elements of the conference was the consistent opportunity to discuss the content with other consultation participants and reflect on implications of the content with people in various ministry contexts. On the last day of the consultation, space was given for the attendees to engage in a more intimate discussion with presenters in regional and context-specific groups. Every day we heard reflections from the Listener’s Team, a diverse small group of attendees who met to discuss the major themes and ideas heard each day. The consultation also included panel discussions between keynote speakers where they were presented with questions from the roundtable conversations. Some of the questions the panels were asked during the week included: What advice would you give the Western Church to reach the Muslim majority world for Christ? How do you do bridge building with people who put you in a box? Does a more friendly and positive approach distract us from the mission of God?
To avoid observing the themes of the conference in a purely Christian context all week long, Muslim scholars from Shia and Sunni communities were invited to respond to the topics of the Qur’an and Muhammad from their points of view.
Case Studies and Morning Devotionals
Three mornings during the week, we were given a case study to read, analyze, and discuss a case related to the theme of each day. Then practitioners were interviewed to learn from their experiences in their ministry contexts. Through the case studies, we realized that uninformed answers are not conducive to discipleship among followers of Christ from a Muslim background or ministry among those seeking Christ from a Muslim background. We were reminded to not attack others but to serve “the other” and that when concerned about the salvation of others, perhaps we should talk to God first about their salvation. Every morning we were encouraged through the Word in a devotional led by a different person every day. We were reminded that when Jesus met the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4, Jesus didn’t offer her religion. In Luke 5, we were dazzled by the faith of the men who brought their friend to Christ. And from the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand we are told to not lean on our own answers, sort out our problems or look at problems of others through our own lens.
Thinking Biblically about Muslims, Muhammad and the Qur’an
The consultation bore within us the need for humility when investigating Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. We should consider the kerygmatic approach as it is Christ-centered and avoids the battle between religions that polemics often fight. Unlike syncretism, which tends to be graciously compromising, or the skeptical polemical response that is not helpful in our Christian witness, the Kerygmatic approach is also scientifically honest. Having a less polemical approach will also help us journey with followers of Christ from a Muslim Background in their discipleship by encouraging them to develop a constructive, Christ-focused narrative. We should also remain curious in our witness and be open to not painting Islam or Muslims with broad-brush strokes. It is dangerous for the Church to not rethink Christian life in different contexts. When questions of compromising faith arise, the litmus test is keeping our loyalty to and allegiance to Christ and therefore as He is our example, we should not emotionally react in a strong way if the religious other is acting out a need to be strong and right.
A book launch for the new book from IMES, The Missiology behind the Story: Voices from the Arab World, was held the first evening of the conference. Editor Jonathan Andrews led an interview with various contributors who included professors and students in IMES’ Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. The evening ended with a small presentation reviewing the book.