Monday, June 16, 2008

Four Evangelists on a Balcony

Yesterday evening I was invited to the home of a local Imam (one who leads prayers in a mosque). A student in one of my classes, his stilted English was balanced by his unstinting hospitality. We were joined on his apartment balcony by three other locals: a British-trained medical doctor, an expert in Islamic civil law, and the owner of a pastry shop. The balcony, high on the Mt. Ebal side of Nablus, offers stunning views of the urban sprawl, the Old City and, above it, Gerizim, home to the Samaritans.

Most of the 2-hour conversation was theological, though with regular detours into politics. Here, as in much of the world, to quarantine religion from politics is to defy gravity. Without waiting for my questions they eagerly listed the marks of a good Muslim, narrated the events of the Last Days, and extolled the the wonders of the Qur'an. Fueled by juice and watermelon, coffee and chocolate, we traveled the theological landscape, discussed differences between Judaism and Islam, and pondered the intractable antagonism of the modern conflict.

Equally fascinating were both the substance of their comments and the tone they adopted; it was as if they were praying to see scales fall from my eyes so I could see the truth and spontaneously convert. This uneasy Evangelical was being evangelized.

Notwithstanding my Christian intransigence, these four friends were uncommonly generous tutors in (local) Muslim thought. Here are a few highlights, offered without commentary:
  • The fact that Muslims worldwide read the Qur'an in Arabic is proof of its divine authority.
  • The Qur'an has been miraculously preserved by Allah; neither omissions nor additions have crept in.
  • Jesus did not die. God insured that another man resembled Jesus, allowing Jesus to escape while the other died in his place. God took Jesus to heaven where he now lives.
  • Jesus is a Muslim. When he returns, an Imam will invite him to be the new Imam but Jesus will refuse. When Christians see Jesus praying behind the Imam, they will all convert to Islam.
  • To be a good Muslim, one needs to believe in all the prophets without exception (including Jesus), as well as the angels and "the Day After."
  • Most Muslims in the world today are not good Muslims. This does not simply mean they do not observe the five pillars; it means they are not seeking God.
  • Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. Non-Arab converts over the years (e.g., in Asia) have embraced Islam in response to the integrity and example of Muslims, not in response to violence.
  • Both practicing Muslims and religious Jews agree (the doctor explained) that the conflict between these two peoples will continue until the end of history. Any treaty or negotiated settlement will at best offer only temporary reprieve. The "two-state solution"--peaceful, side-by-side co-existence--is (they assured me) not possible.
This last point caught me by surprise. I hear this sort of resignation from Jewish Zionists and know that Chrisitan Zionists defend the eschatological necessity of the conflict in order to justify their political opposition to international peace efforts. But I'd not heard this same perspective advanced so clearly by non-militant, practicing Muslims.

I'd like to think that my quartet of tutors are out of touch with the mainstream. Most locals I've met are profoundly pessimistic about a long-term solution to the Occupation. But they are not fatalistic. For them peace is possible but politically unlikely. By contrast, these four men were resigned to the status quo; ultimate vindication would come in the eschaton but not before.

Our conversation ended rather abruptly as the sun set and as minarets across the city summoned the faithful to prayer. Walking with the Imam to his mosque, I listened and watched through an open window as he, donning a robe, head-covering and lapel mic, sang the evening prayer before a single line of two dozen men. It lasted about 15 minutes, after which he insisted on walking me the mile or so back to my apartment and bidding me God's peace.

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