While on a four-day trip to our nation’s capital for meetings last week, I had the good fortune of meeting three different Muslim men. The first was my hotel shuttle driver, the second an Uber driver, and the third a shift manager of the hotel where I stayed. With all three I enjoyed separate conversations dealing with their lives as Muslims and their understanding of Jesus. In the process, I was struck once again by how little most Muslims know about their own faith. Most non-Muslims are shocked to hear this, as they typically assume that Muslims are well-schooled in Islam since they are so often portrayed in the media as praying, fasting and memorizing the Qur’an.
However, Islam prizes obedience to religious requirements far above understanding of doctrine. As a result, many Muslims follow ritual requirements as best they can, but spend little time studying their sacred texts. In fact, since Islam’s supreme religious text is the Qur’an, revealed in ancient Arabic, and since some 75% of the Muslim world cannot speak or read modern Arabic, much less the ancient Quraishi Arabic of the Qur’an, most Muslims do not spend much time reading their holy book for understanding. Instead, they get their information from imams, mullahs or sheikhs, whose training is of varying quality. As a result, the majority of Muslims are relatively ignorant of the core beliefs found in the Qur’an. Instead, they are much more familiar with the Sunna (the traditions concerning Muhammad’s personal practices and teachings), which typically are available to read in their own native tongues. As anecdotal evidence of this, I present snippets of conversations with my three new Muslim friends.
Umayr was my shuttle driver. Over three short trips with him I learned that this shy 28 year-old Pakistani has been in the USA for five years (most of his nuclear family is here as well, though his dad passed away while they still lived in Karachi). Last year, Umayr got married — to a 24 year-old Pakistani woman whom he had never met in person before he flew back to Pakistan for the wedding. “But,” he said to me, “I did see a photo of her.” His mom, here in the US, through family contacts had found a “suitable mate” and made the appropriate arrangements. Umayr spent one week with her before having to fly back to America alone. It will be another year or two before all the paperwork is approved for her to come join him. “Is she excited about coming here?” I asked. “Oh, yes, she loves the West, though she has never visited. She has a Master’s degree in English literature!” “Wow,” I replied, ” so what does she plan to do — will she teach here?” Umayr hesitated, and I understood. “Oh, you want to start a family right away.” He smiled shyly and nodded. We moved on.
“Do you go to the mosque regularly,” I asked. “Oh, yes, of course.” Which mosque do you attend in the area?” “Oh, the one here in town.” I hadn’t realized there was one in this particular suburb. “In what language is the khutbah (equivalent of a sermon) spoken — English, Arabic or Urdu (the primary language of Pakistan)?” I probed. “It is in English,” he said proudly, and added, “Back home, the khutbah was always in Arabic.” A bit confused, I asked him hopefully, “So, Umayr, you know Arabic?” “No,” he said, “I can’t understand it.” “So how did you understand the khutbah? Was there someone to translate into Urdu for the listeners” “No,” “So what would you do while the imam was speaking?” I asked, a bit staggered. “We would sit quietly and wait until it was over.”
This vignette undergirds the conviction that growth in understanding of the faith is not a high priority for many in Islam. What counts the most is obedience to the mandatory and supererogatory practices commanded or commended by Islamic tradition. Understanding the teaching at the mosque is not essential, but showing up for the mandatory Friday noon prayers that accompany the khutbah is.
My second encounter was with an Afghani Uber driver named Sayed. Climbing into the back of his Toyota, I inquired, “Sayed?” “Yes,” he replied, and then rather incredulously he asked, “You are Mateen?” “Yes.” Looking me over, he continued, “I have friends in Afghanistan named Mateen. You don’t look like a Mateen.” We laughed, and so began our friendly conversation. “Are you a Muslim?” he asked me. “No, I’m a Christian. How about you — you’re Muslim?” “No, I’m nothing now. I was Muslim but saw so much evil being done by other Muslims in Kabul that I do not believe God is with them.” Sayed worked as an interpreter in Kabul for the US military, and came to America three years ago. He and his wife have three children, two boys and a girl, all in their teens. I kidded him about , having his hands full as a father, and he nodded. During a lull in the conversation, I asked him, “So, tell me what you know about ‘Isa (the name for Jesus in the Qur’an). “Yes, Jesus. He’s mentioned often in the Qur’an — more than Muhammad,” he offered. “Have you ever read the Injil (Arabic word for “gospel” but most often used as shorthand for the New Testament)? You can learn much more about Jesus there than in the Qur’an.” “No,” he said, “but I know that he was born of his mother Mariam (Mary) without a man involved.” “Yes,” I encouraged him, “the Bible also teaches that he was conceived miraculously, without an earthly father.” “I know,” Sayed said, “the Qur’an teaches that an angel came to Mariam with a fruit from Paradise, and when she ate it, she became pregnant.” That brought me up short. “Wait, where did you learn that? That’s not in the Qur’an. It says that the Holy Spirit breathed into her garments [literally into her private parts], and that’s how she conceived Jesus.” “Really,” he said, “we were taught that it’s in the Qur’an. Oh, well, I don’t know, I can’t read the book for myself.” By now, we were pulling up to my hotel, so I thanked him for his new friendship and the interesting conversation. “Sayed, I won’t forget you. May God bless you.” “How can I forget an American Mateen?” he answered. “I am happy to meet you.”
My third conversation took place over fifteen minutes during the shuttle ride from hotel to airport. Aman, the hotel’s night shift manager, with whom I’d been chatting while waiting for the first shuttle of the morning, decided to come with Umayr and me so that he could be dropped off near his home. As we continued talking on the bus, I mentioned to him my conversation with Sayed from the day before and his comment about how Mary got pregnant by eating a fruit brought from Paradise by an angel. “That’s just a folktale,” Aman said dismissively, and began to school me on the truth, launching into a soliloquy on paradise, Adam and Eve, the serpent and the peacock, the angels and Satan, mixing together some material from the Qur’an with a heavy dose of traditional material from the Hadith traditions. The climax of his lecture was the statement that Allah planned all that happened for the benefit of Adam and Eve (and all their descendants) because, “As the Qur’an tells us, Allah loves every person 70 times more than his own mother does.”
“Aman,” I interrupted, “that’s not in the Qur’an.” “Yes, it must be. That’s what we were taught.” “No,” I said, “the Qur’an never says that Allah loves every human being. In fact, it is quite clear that Allah loves only the obedient, and that those who disobey him bear his wrath both now and when they die. “Really?” he asked. “We were told this is in the Qur’an.”
I’d never heard this specific teaching before, so when I got home I did some research and discovered that this statement about Allah’s love cannot be found even in any of the six major hadith collections (and that’s saying something, because one typically can find something in the Hadiths to support one’s particular claims on almost any topic). The statement that “Allah loves the individual 70 times more than his/her own mother” falls squarely in the category of folktales.
My point in all this is that many self-professing Muslims do not have a solid grasp on their faith, and are open to discovering truth when they realize that their beliefs are on shaky ground. Many become open to hearing a Christian witness to the unique Lordship of Jesus, and of His substitutionary self-sacrifice for sinners, bearing the brunt of divine wrath for the sins we have committed.
One problem, however, is that many self-professing Christians are as ignorant of the Bible as Muslims are of the Qur’an. When you ask them their favorite verse, they might respond with, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” or “This, too, shall pass,” or “Charity begins at home,” or “A fool and his money are soon parted.”
Christians are supposed to believe that the Bible is the written repository of divine truth. If so, the study of it should be a high priority, and rightly handling the truth in our conversations with others should be essential. As we internalize God’s Word, the treasury of divine wisdom in sanctified hearts and minds should bring light and encouragement to those with whom we engage.
None of us, naturally, has ingested once for all the totality of God’s Truth. There is always more to learn and make our own. But all disciples of Jesus should be further ahead than we were a month ago, and, as Paul says:
Let you speech always be grace-filled, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one. — Colossians 4:6.
There are many wandering far from the light and life of Jesus, for whom a word of wisdom from a Christian friend could be the signpost pointing them away from futility and turning them toward their true home in the One who loves them and gave His life for them. Of those many wanderers, God has given me a special passion for Muslims. For you it may be some other people group.
But whoever it is, may God grant you a hunger to grow in Truth through His Scriptures, and a fervency to speak that Truth in love to those for whom your heart beats with compassion.