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Location : Education : Interfaith : Crossing

Crossing the border

This article was first published in Australian Catholics, Summer 2002

Australian communities increasingly reflect the diversity of the world community. No longer is one culture, or faith, dominant. DAN MADIGAN SJ adopts a great Australian practice in getting to know Muslim people through talking, listening and sharing an occasional beer.

Just now one of my keenest students—she takes three of my courses—knocked on the door and took the prayer rug she keeps in my office. It’s the middle of the afternoon and time for one of the five ritual prayers that Muslims are supposed to pray each day.

Zeynep is Turkish and has come to study in Rome because she wants to know about Christianity. She wears a scarf on her head, a shawl and a long skirt. She’s not trying to be fashionable. I can’t help thinking how much she looks like some of the young women I went to university with. Although she has a mischievous sense of humour, I doubt she’d be ready to have a pint of Guinness with me, because Muslims are not supposed to touch alcohol.

More than once last year, though, I enjoyed a drink with another woman who would also consider herself a good Muslim. Neslihan had come to Rome to research the Franciscans in the Vatican archives. As we talked about religion one evening at a table outside the pub, along came a Pakistani flower seller who thought a rose might be just the thing for this couple so deep in conversation. We got talking in Urdu and he asked me if I was a Muslim.

‘No’, I said. ‘But she is.’

‘Do you pray five times a day?’ he asked her.

‘No’, she admitted.

‘But you should’, he said.

‘Well, do you?’ I asked.

‘I don’t have time’, he said. ‘I work from early morning and late into the night selling things to tourists—umbrellas when it rains, toys for their kids, roses at night for their girlfriends. Are you sure you don’t want to buy a rose?’

Every now and again you see someone you think is a stereotypical Muslim—like the Iranian ambassador who visits here sometimes. His dark beard and turban and his long robes scared the receptionist, but it turns out he’s as intelligent and thoughtful as you would expect any professional philosopher to be.

Not one of these people is the same as the others. Not one of the many Muslims I have met and the many I count as friends, is just the same as another. Though you would never guess it reading the newspaper or watching TV, Muslims are as varied and diverse as Christians.

Each one has a name and a personal story, a family and a home, dreams and fears, faith and doubts. They belong to different groups, have different approaches to scripture and authority. Some will tell you nothing matters but love. Others are sure that obedience is much more important. This one says all religions are basically the same, while that one says you should really become a Muslim if you want to go to heaven. They are a lot like us.

I’ve actually learned a great deal about being a Christian from living and studying with Muslims. It’s the questions they ask that I learn most from because they make me rethink so many things I take for granted. The key points of Christian identity make Muslims want to say, "But why? But how?" Trinity, redemption, incarnation, revelation, some of the most important words in our theological dictionary, all raise serious questions for Muslims.

We Christians have got so used to talking only among ourselves that we’ve forgotten how strange some of the things we believe sound to someone else. ‘If God has a Son, doesn’t that mean you believe in two Gods?’ I understand how God’s word can become scripture, but how can it become flesh?’ The questions are endless. And they’re all good ones which make us think hard about what we believe and why.

Muslims believe many of the same things as Christians: that God created us and our world; that God is revealed through prophets and scriptures (including the Christian and Jewish scriptures), that after we die we will be raised up again to be judged by God and rewarded or punished.

A major difference is that Christians believe that God’s word was made flesh—that is, that God expressed himself through a human life, the life of Jesus from Nazareth. For us the scriptures are words we know were written by human beings. They are treasured by the community because they put us in touch with the Word-made-flesh. For Muslims, God’s eternal Word becomes scripture directly. The Koran that Muslims memorise, recite and chant is for them God’s Word come among us in Arabic.

So Muhammad, their prophet, is not thought of as a divine figure the way Christians understand Jesus. He is a human being like ourselves, though he plays a key role in Islam. He is the human channel through which God’s Word entered the world, the way Mary is in Christian faith. He is the most important interpreter of God’s Word, the way St Paul or the gospel writers are of Jesus Christ. Like Paul and the others, he died and awaits the resurrection of the dead. Muslims do not believe that Jesus was killed. How could God let that happen? They believe he was taken up to heaven alive and will return at the end of time.

The ‘good Muslims’, as well as the ‘good Christians’ I know are people who search for what God really wants for this world. When any of us decides we already know exactly what God wants and we don’t need to listen to God’s voice any more, we betray not only our religion but the God we profess to believe in.

Dan Madigan SJ teaches Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations at the Gregorian University in Rome. His book The Koran’s self-image is published by Princeton University Press.

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