Twenty Years Later

September 11, 2021

This was a presentation I gave in various ways on multiple occasions (including video) within a large Christian congregation during the weeks following the attacks on September 11, 2001. I haven’t updated it or made any changes to this version, which was published on November 25, 2001:

Children of Abraham:  Christian/Muslim Dialogue

I. The Basics of Islam: Islam means “submission to God;” Muslim means
“one who submits to God.” 

A. Muhammad: “Muhammad is naught but a Messenger.” (Koran, The House of Imran, 137)

1.  Muslims believe God revealed a new faith, little by little, to Muhammad, the “last and greatest” Prophet.   He was born about A.D. 570 in Mecca.  His father died before his birth and he was raised by his grandfather, and then his uncle.  At age 20, he became a commercial agent  for a wealthy woman named Khadija, who was 20 years older than Muhammad.  Khadija proposed marriage, which he accepted at age 25.  They were married for 25 years until her death at age 70.

2.  At about age 40, Muhammad began to receive revelations in the form of a voice and a vision.  At first he was disturbed, but Khadija and her cousin, Waraqua, a Christian, comforted and encouraged Muhammad.  He began reciting the revelations to a small group of family and friends, which they began to write down.  (One could be successful in business in those days without acquiring the skill of writing, and Muhammad may not have been able to write himself.)

3.  The name Allah, for God, was not unknown to the Arabs.  That culture considered Allah to be the high god of the many divinities they worshiped.  Muhammad proclaimed Allah as the Creator, the source of life, the Lord of the Resurrection and the One who some day will call all human beings to account.

4.  People outside Muhammad’s family gradually began to accept his message, but Mecca in general did not welcome it.  In A.D. 619, Khadija died, as did Muhammad’s beloved uncle Abu Talib (from whom the name Taliban comes).  The number of Muslims in Mecca declined, but some people inYathrib (later known as Medina) were moved by Muhammad’s message and 75 men came to Mecca in the year A.D. 622 to invite Muhammad and other Muslims to move to Medina.

5.  This emigration, or hijra, was so significant, that Muslims begin their calendar at this point, so that the first year of the Islamic calendar corresponds with year 622 of the Christian calendar.  Islam spread rapidly during the next decade and by A.D. 631, much of the Arabic peninsula was united under Islam, including Mecca.  After making a pilgrimage to Mecca in the spring of A.D. 632, Muhammad died (perhaps due to malaria) at the age of 62. 

B.   The Koran:  “The All-merciful has taught the Koran, He created man and He has taught him the   Explanation.”  (Koran, The All-Merciful, 2-3)

1.  The holy book of Islam, more precisely rendered Qur’an, literally means “the recitation.”  The Koran contains the messages delivered, or recited, by Muhammad and gathered together by his followers.  This collection began during Muhammad’s lifetime and was completed after his death.

2.  The Koran was written in Arabic and it is very hard to translate.  Muslims believe what God said is inseparable from the way the thoughts are expressed (in Arabic).  So, the meaning of the Koran cannot be exactly conveyed in any translation.  The quotes used in this presentation are from The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, a Touchstone Book, published by Simon and Schuster in 1955.

3.  Muslims believe God has revealed his word to humanity throughout the ages by means of prophets and by means of scriptures.  Muslims believe God spoke to the Hebrew people through their prophet Moses and to the Christian people through their prophet Jesus.  Muslims believe the Koran is the culmination and conclusion of all prophetic revelations, and was addressed to the Arabic people, who had not yet been given a revelation in the Arabic language.

4.  Muslims believe the Koran was transmitted to Muhammad over a period of 23 years by the angel Gabriel.  They believe the words came from a heavenly tablet from which previous revelations to other peoples had been delivered.  Muslims believe the Koran is essentially in agreement with the Torah, the Book of Moses, and the Injil, the Book of Jesus.  (These are Arabic words which refer to revelations that no longer exist on earth in their pristine, original written forms—rather than the Pentateuch or the New Testament.  This distinction gives Muslims the freedom to disagree with Jewish and Christian scriptures where they are believed to be “at variance” with God’s original revelation.)

5.  The Koran is arranged in 114 chapters called suras.   The suras are mentioned in the Koran itself, so they form a part of the original revelation.  All but one begin with “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”  The language of the Koran is rhymed prose.  The verses rhyme but are not metrical.

C.   The Faith of Islam:  “Know thou therefore that there is no god but God, and ask forgiveness for thy sin.”  (Koran, Muhammad, 21)  “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”  (Koran, Victory, 29)

1.  The two affirmations above (from suras 47 and 48) are joined to make a confession of faith, or creed, called The Shahada, or “The Witness” of the community.  Muslims say, “I witness that there is no deity except God, and I witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”  Faithful Muslims repeat this confession several times each day.

2.  Prayer, or salat, is required at dawn, at noon, at midafternoon, at sunset, and in the night.  Because the daylight hours change with the seasons of the year, Muslim newspapers and calendars print the times of prayer for each day of the year.  Muslims prepare for prayer by washing the face and limbs, and salat involves a series of postures, gestures, recitations, and period of silence, facing in the direction of Mecca.

3.  The words of the first sura, “The Opening” are recited at each prayer period:

            In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

            Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being,

            the All-merciful, the All-compassionate,

                   the Master of the Day of Doom.

            Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succour.

                   Guide us in the straight path,

            the path of those whom Thou hast blessed,

            not of those against whom Thou art wrathful,

                   nor of those who are astray.

4.  Friday is the Muslim holy day.  Muslims gather at noon at mosques for communal worship and a sermon.  Every mosque, whether simple or elaborate, has a mihrab, a niche built into a wall that marks the qibla, the direction of Mecca.

5.  Muslims believe God is the Creator and owner of all things.  People are entrusted with various amounts of wealth to satisfy their needs and help others.  Increased wealth brings greater responsibility.  Muslims are required each year to practice zakat, which is the contribution of 2 ½ percent of their net worth to care for the poor and needy.  This is not considered a tax, but an act of worship.  Some Muslim countries leave zakat to the conscience of the individual.  In some Muslim countries the government collects zahat.

6.  Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan.  People are awakened early to eat a meal just before daylight.  Food is usually eaten just before or just after the sunset prayer.  The fast is not considered valid if the person entertains thoughts of envy or hatred.

7.  Muslims are required, if economically able, to make a Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime.  They dress in white to honor Abraham.  They pray at the Kaba, an ancient shrine on the spot where they believe Abraham built the first house of God.  The Kaba is a black, cube-shaped structure which contains a mass of meteorite material that was venerated as a shrine by Arabs for centuries before Muhammad.  Muhammad rededicated the shrine to God.  The stone within it is a sign to Muslims of God’s covenant with Abraham.

II. The Three Abrahamic Faiths: “Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews and the idolaters; and thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians’; that, because some of them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud, and when they hear what has been sent down to the Messenger, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of the truth they recognize.” (Koran, The Table, 85-86)

A.  Judaism:  “Children of Israel, remember My blessing wherewith I blessed you, and that I have preferred you above all beings.”  (Koran, The Cow, 43)

“Some of the Jews pervert words from their meanings.”  (Koran, Women, 48)

1.  Judaism introduced the world to monotheism, belief in one God.  Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El says, “Judiasm and Christianity are not sister religions.  We are your mother.”  Rabbi Miller could say the same thing about Islam.  Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, and the Hebrew foundations of Islam are woven throughout the Koran.   In the Koran, Jews (and sometimes Christians) are referred to as the “People of the Book.”

2.  While the point of Exodus 3:13-15 is that God is beyond any name, Yahweh became the most widely used name for the deity in the Hebrew Bible.

3.  Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham by way of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah.  Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham by way of Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar.

B. Christianity:  “God said, ‘Jesus, I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me, and I will purify thee of those who believe not.  I will set thy followers above the unbelievers till the Resurrection Day.  Then unto Me shall you return, and I will decide between you, as to what you were at variance on.” (Koran, House of Imran, 47-49)

1.  The tenor of the Koran is that God blessed the Hebrew people but most of them turned away from him.  The attitude toward Christians is somewhat softer.  One factor may be Waraqua, the Christian cousin of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, who encouraged Muhammed in those early years.

2.  In sura 3, “The House of Imran,” Jesus’ mother Mary is venerated.  (In this story, Imran is the father of Mary.)  Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, which is described in sura 19, “Mary.”

3.  Muslims believe Jesus was the Messiah, and the miracles of Jesus are referenced:  “I will also heal the blind and the leper, and bring to life the dead, by the leave of God.”  (The House of Imran, 42)   This sura also contains a story about Jesus making a clay bird come to life (41).

4.  The Koran asserts that Jesus was not crucified, thus agreeing with some early Christian heretics known as Gnostics.  “(The Jews said) ‘We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of god’—yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them….God raised him up to Him; god is All-mighty, All-wise.”  (Koran, Women, 155-157)

5.  Muslims do not believe Jesus was the “son of God,” because they believe God has no sons.  They do not believe Jesus was divine because only God is divine.  When Muhammad died, one of his lieutenants announced, “If you worship Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if you worship God, God is alive forever.”

C.    Islam:  “And they say, ‘Be Jews or Christians and you shall be guided.’  Say thou:  ‘Nay, rather the creed of Abraham, a man of pure faith; he was no idolater.’  Say you:  ‘We believe in God, and in that which has been sent down on us and sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender.’  And if they believe in the like of that you believe in, then they are truly guided; but if they turn away, then they are clearly in schism; God will suffice you for them; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.”  (Koran, The Cow, 129-132)

“Abraham in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian; but he was a Muslim and one pure of faith…. Surely the people standing closest to Abraham are those who followed him, and this Prophet, and those who believe; and God is the Protector of the believers.”  (Koran, The House of Imran, 60-61)

1.  There are well over one billion Muslims in the world today.  Just as there is great diversity within the ranks of Christianity, there is also great diversity within Islam.  There are two major schools of thought within Islam.  About 90% of Muslims are Sunnis, People of the Sunna, those who respect and follow the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad.

2. About 10% of Muslims are Shi’ites. The Shi’a emerged early in Muslim history, believing that Islam should be led by a descendant of Muhammad. Muhammad’s successors were called Caliphs. The Shi’a were instrumental in installing Muhammad’s cousin, ‘Ali as the third Calif, because they believed he was the person Muhammad wanted to be his successor. The Shi’ites believe God appointed Imams to continue Muhammad’s work. The word imam also refers to the leader of the communal prayers in a Mosque, but the Shi’ites believe there have been twelve infallible Imams, the last of whom was born in A.D. 870. He went into concealment at the age of 8 and is expected to return in the future as the restorer of faith and justice. Until he returns, legal specialists and scholars serve as his intermediaries, or Ayatollahs. These people interpret the Koran’s spiritual inner meaning, as well as its outer, literal meaning.

3. Sufis are Islam’s mystics, perhaps named for the wool garment (suf) that early ascetics wore. These people are roughly equivalent to the ascetics (and monks) of Christianity.

4.  There is no “Islamic” culture.  There are many cultures within Islam, just as there are many cultural expressions of Christianity.   Pakistan, for example, has had a woman prime minister, but in some Islamic countries, women are not allowed to drive an automobile.  Sometimes what we see is not Islam but a regional culture.

5.  Sometimes a culture may express a value that contradicts a religion’s basic values in the name of that religion.  The Ku Klux Klan does this in the name of Christianity.  The Al Qaeda does this in the name of Islam.

6.  Salem Alhassi, a Muslim scholar, recently gave a lecture at Birmingham-Southern College.  Here are some quotes:One tends to compare the ideal form of his or her faith with the average (or worst) expression of another’s faith.  We must look at the content of the other person’s faith rather than the behavior of some who claim to profess that faith.

In Islam, the punishment for “mischief” is stronger than the punishment for killing.  In Islam, those whose family member was killed have the right to forgive the killer if they wish, but if it is the result of mischief, they do not have the right to forgive the killer.  Terrorism is mischief.  If one commits acts of terror, one is no longer a Muslim (or a Christian or a Jew).  One is an unbeliever (or an infidel).

The word jihad means “struggle.”  The purpose of jihad is to protect the faith.  Terrorism is not jihad.  Terrorism is mischief.  Terrorism goes against the basic values of Islam.  A terrorist is a criminal who twists the faith for his own purposes.

In Islam, killing an innocent person is a greater sin than not believing in God.  When one kills another, it is as if he or she killed all humankind.  When one saves another, it is as if he or she saved all humankind.

III. The Interface of Christianity and Islam: “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them. God guides not the people of evildoers.” (Koran, The Table, 56)

A. Neighbors: “Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, ad to the neighbour who is of kin, and to the neighbour who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveller, and to that your right hands own. Surely God love not the proud and boastful. (Koran, Women, 40)

1.  We live on a small planet.  Jews and Arabs have been neighbors since the time of Ishmael and Isaac.  Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel were published in a book called The Blood of Abraham.  In the preface of the book Carter said it is ironic that the Arabs and Jews have been at odds all these years because they have a common ancestor, Abraham.  Perhaps Jews, Christians and Muslims can all pray that the spirit of Abraham would prevail as we seek to solve questions such as the debate over a Palestinian homeland.

2.  All three Abrahamic faiths teach love, or kindness, to neighbors.  We have not always lived up to these texts.   

3.  Christians and Muslims have been neighbors for almost 1,400 years.  Sometimes we’ve been able to live in peace.  Sometimes we have resorted to holy wars.  A wall surrounds the old city of Jerusalem today that was built by the Muslim Turks in the thirteenth century.  Christians called a holy war a crusade.  Muslims called a holy war a jihad.   The “just war” tradition replaced the crusade as the dominant Christian attitude toward war.  Both Islam and Christianity place limits on what is ethical in warfare.

4.  This present crisis can be an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to find new ways of relating to one another and new ways of talking with one another.

B. Dialogue:  “People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth.  The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him.  So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’  Refrain; better is it for you.  God is only One God.”  (Koran, Women, 168)

“They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Third of Three.’  No god is there but One God.”  (Koran, The Table, 78)

1.  Where do we begin our dialogue?  One place is our common belief in monotheism.  The above texts from the Koran reflect a misconception that continues within Islam.  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is understood by Muslims to mean Christians believe in three gods.  The Trinity is indeed a complex doctrine, but it is tragic that Christianity and Islam have co-existed for fourteen centuries and we have not convinced them that we are monotheists!

2.  Another point of dialogue is our common reverence for Abraham.  Many Christians are probably unaware that Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca go there to honor the memory of Abraham.  Abraham was dedicated to following God, but he was amazingly relaxed about the “things of earth.”  He was a model of how to treat with respect and kindness the neighbor who is of a different faith.

C. Christian Witness: “Say: O unbelievers, I serve not what you serve and you are not serving what I serve, nor am I serving what you have served, neither are you serving what I serve. To you your religion, and to me my religion!” (Koran, The Unbelievers, 1-5)

1.  The Koran is defensive.  Muhammad and early Muslims were a minority in a hostile environment.  Even friendly Jews or Christians engaged them in lively dialogues about matters of faith.  At several points the Koran asserts what Jews or Christians claim and then it spells out the response to be made by Muslims.  So, if we are serious about evangelizing these folks, a starting place is for us to have a working knowledge of the main tenets of the Koran.

2.  The Koran is clear that religious labels are meaningless.  The point is whether one’s heart and one’s actions are consistent with God’s path.  The Koran is also clear that judgment will occur—it is full of references to paradise for the believers and eternal torment for unbelievers.  This provides an opening for Christian witness about God’s desire for the human community, about ethics, about some principles of our common humanity.

3.  The attack of September 11th has provided a “teachable moment” for us.  May God remove any prejudice or intolerance within us lest we mirror the hatred that hurled itself upon us.  May we always remember that this violence came from a small, misguided minority among millions of peace-loving Muslims.  May this crisis awaken people of all faiths to affirm our common humanity and may each person embrace the best principles of his or her religion as people of faith lead the world to peace.  May our Christian witness embody the grace and spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord.