Azumah’s engagement with Islamic tradition and texts reflects a lifetime of interaction with people who hold these traditions and texts dear. His point of view is, ‘from on high,’ taking in the entire terrain of this complex field. I affirm his interpretations of Islamic traditions and texts because this is how I hear Muslims from many walks of life using and appropriating these traditions. No imam, or ordinary Muslim I have ever known, agrees with contemporary terrorist interpretations of Islam, which propagate violence and radicalism. I am not an Islamic Studies or Arabic scholar; however, I am a lifelong student of Islam and I have lived among Muslims in both West Africa and the US. My own reading in Islamic studies, and more broadly in the field of Christian-Muslim relations, supports Azumah’s use and understanding of Islamic texts and traditions.[i]
Azumah notes, “We need to strongly resist the view that Islam is the problem, that the Qur’an is the problem, that Muhammad is the problem. To denounce Islam as a death-loving religion—or the Qur’an and Muhammad as a constitution and example, respectively, for terrorists—provides excuses for twisted zealots.” He is right in saying we should resist the urge to attack Islam, the Qur’ran and Muhammad as the problem. Attacking what people hold dear rarely produces fruitful dialogue or positive change. Within the global religious landscape, 1.8 billion Muslims[ii] in the world diligently seek to pattern their lives on the “sunnah of the prophet” and turn to the Qur’an for guidance about what to believe and how to live in this world.
Most Muslims I know have an image of Muhammad similar to that described by Nabil Quareshi,[iii] of a kind grandfather that one looks up to and admires. My Muslim friends point to Muhammad’s final sermon that depict positive message for women such as, “Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.”[iv] It contains as well, a renunciation of racism, “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white.”[v] Muslims understand these types of good behaviors as constituting the essence of Islam. Attacking Islam, Muhammad or the Qur’an is understood as an assault on what is good and true. Thus, an attack on Muhammad is perceived to be an attack on all Muslims because all Muslims pattern their lives upon his. When the Danish cartoonist[vi] satirized Muhammad, it provoked waves of anger around the globe and did nothing to bring understanding or combat terrorism.
Azumah says, “Those who argue that jihadi groups represent the ‘essence’ of Islam actually reflect a very Western way of thinking. Wittingly or unwittingly, they presume a textualist interpretation of Islam, imagining that we can explain Islamic terrorism by drawing a straight line between authoritative texts and the actions of jihadists.” I agree with Azumah in his rejection of essentialist interpretations of Islam. These attempts to grasp the essence of Islam begin to fall apart when one speaks with individual Muslims. As he says, “the truth about religious lives is not so simple.” Textualist approaches to understanding Christian faith are equally flawed.
Why any of us do what we do flows from a multitude of factors and influences, many of which are subconscious, and which are tied to human nature. As an anthropologist I am interested in the human side of faith. Over the past two years my field work has taken me into the Muridiyya community, a Senegalese Sufi order with a vibrant community in Harlem, NY. Their founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba (d. 1927), is acknowledged for his nonviolence and for his teaching on peace, ethics, proper behavior and service to the Prophet Muhammad. In a turbulent and violent time in West Africa, he advocated for embracing Islam and rejecting all forms of violence. For example, his reading of the a commonly used Qur’anic passage[vii] to support jihad rejects any reading of a jihad of the sword (jihād al-asghar), choosing instead a reading that focuses on community wellbeing and a jihad against the soul (jihad al nafs). Murids accept that there was a need for violence in the earliest days of the formation of Islam under Muhammad due to the struggle defend themselves against the Meccans. But they also note, that time has passed, and the demands of our contemporary world are different.
Thus, while this nonviolent community is but one voice in the broader Muslim world, there are other minority voices that agree with them, including the Ahmadis and the Isma’ilis. And as Azumah has pointed out, so do some mainstream majority opinions. It is important to remember that the Muslim world is as diverse as the Christian world. We must acknowledge this and cease to make broad generalizations, attempting instead to understand the hopes and concerns of our Muslims neighbors, whoever they may be.
Azumah describes Wahhabi Islam’s connections and activities to violent groups, noting, “This religious context provides the intellectual framework for justifying violence.” The challenge for Christian academics is to offer a counter point, an intellectual framework for peace and nonviolence in a violent world. Just as there are Islamic religious contexts that offer an intellectual framework for justifying violence there are also Christian religious contexts that provide intellectual frameworks to justify violence. This was on public display in 2015 when Liberty University’s president said, “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”[viii] He also asked students to sign up for concealed-carry and insinuated that he himself was carrying. Incidentally, a significant number of pilots for the US drone warfare program come from Liberty. In 2015 their School of Aeronautics drone program was the sixth largest in the nation. How does the nation’s largest Christian University square this with the prophetic call of Isaiah to study war no more?
Christian academics need to challenge standard church teaching on Just War theory. Christian Just War teaching and Islamic teaching on the rules for waging jihad are roughly analogous. Christian academics might take a fresh look at the work of John Howard Yoder, who showed that although Just War theory sought to restrain government from going to war, exceptions have weakened restraint and given excuses to pursue war.[ix] Muslim thinker and writer Abu-Nimer, while acknowledging that Islamic teaching demands the option to use violence to defend the ummah, wrestles with similar issues in an attempt to construct an Islamic non-violent theory and practice.
Christian academics need to work within structures and institutions to create an intellectual framework for peace and nonviolence and yet, at the same time, they need to prophesy. We need to challenge the persistent narrative of our society that a “good guy with a gun” is the way to protect our communities. Azumah rightly reminds us that the suicide notes of jihadis make little reference to Islamic teaching and tend to focus on injustices in society. Christian academics in the 21st century need to help create a just and civil society. I believe that Jesus showed us the outline and gave a call for this in his use of the Kingdom of Heaven/God language. Jesus opened his preaching with “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This is not a dour message of shameful repentance and grovelling, but rather a declaration of all things being made new. Repent of the old and welcome the unlimited creative potential of the Kingdom of God… a new heaven and a new earth where there is justice for all! We must enter into this paradigm of the Kingdom and explore what Jesus envisioned; and then our work begins as we seek how to put this into practice on the personal, family, community, national and international levels. Christian academics might offer to the world a perspective and a theoretical framework that makes violence the least attractive alternative.
What can the church do? How can the church respond to Islam’s relation to violence and terror? We need to get honest about our own historic and present dependence on violence and terror. We must remove the log from our own eye before attempting to remove the speck from the eye of our neighbor. When a Christian drone pilot launches a missile into a village to kill a suspected terrorist leader, we are collectively dropping ourselves back into a dark age, where Christendom wars were waged for protection against the Ottoman empire. We must instead embrace the victims of that terror.
There are millions of refugees (Christian, Muslim and other) who are homeless and stricken by violence as a result of jihad. We can lobby our congressional and senate representatives, asking that many more refugees are allowed to enter the US. Our nation’s current limit is an embarrassing 30,000. We have the capacity to take far more. These are gifted people who would eventually bless our nation as productive citizens. We can help Christian brothers and sisters who courageously stay in conflict zones and serve their communities. Organizations like Mennonite Central Committee partner with many of these churches ministering in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and other locations.[x] We can pray for peace. We can encourage our children to serve at home and abroad to meet the needs of refugees or work for peace and justice.
Azumah says, “My own view is that Islamic texts contain seeds of violence.” Not just Islam, but most religious systems contain these seeds. The current rise of Hindu nationalism in India is accompanied by many acts of violence and intimidation. Christians have found the seeds of racism in the story of Noah’s sons. There are seeds of violence in the Exodus story of the conquest of Canna and in the stories of the Israelite kings and kingdoms. Yes, Islam contains seeds of violence, but so do other religious texts and systems.
Christian clergy and academics have a contribution to offer that no other religious community is equally qualified to make: the particularity of the cross. Jesus charged us to be ministers of reconciliation. The ultimate act/event of peacemaking or violence-undoing of all time, is the cross. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the world’s violence, sin, hatred and injustice. Jesus was nailed to the cross and died a violent death while saying, “Father forgive…” Only the Gospel, the good news of a savior who has come down to meet us in our suffering and to save us, offers an alternative to the endless cycles of violence. Only the Gospel offers an alternative that does not depend on human effort.
A theology of the cross that includes Jesus’s suffering with us, and the power of the resurrection to transform and offer new life, must be at the heart of our peacemaking.[xi] In multiple settings, I have been encouraged to set aside the message of the cross and the particularity of the Gospel as it is assumed that it will facilitate Christians-Muslims cooperation. I have been told this by both Christians over a cup of coffee and by Muslim leaders in a mosque; yet my experience confirms that the opposite is true. The clearer I communicate that I come in the spirit and name of Jesus, the more the doors open for real relationship with my Muslim counterparts.
Let me illustrate with a story about a Mennonite pastor in Indonesia, involved in peacemaking or what he calls, a “dialogue of praxis.”[xii] Paulus Hartono was already involved in interfaith peacebuilding through a community radio station that included both Muslims and Christians. During a period of extreme violence, a Muslim group called Hezbollah, was burning churches and killing Christians, Hartono acted on the advice of his radio station colleagues. He walked to the home of the Hezbollah commander and knocked on the door. The man opened the door and asked, “Who are you?” He replied, “I’m a Mennonite pastor.” The commander responded, “You are a Christian, I can kill you. What do you want?” “May I have a cup of tea?” replied Hartono. And thus, started a relationship that transformed the entire region. The killing stopped. Both Hezbollah and Mennonites eventually cooperated in relief and rebuilding efforts following the tsunami in Banda Ache. Today, if you ask Hartono the secret to these amazing transformations in society, he will reply, “Many cups of tea… and the Holy Spirit.”
No matter the task, whether in community development, justice or advocacy, it will be incomplete unless we are doing it in, through and by the way of the cross. Hartono’s disposition and posture was one of weakness and vulnerability. He demonstrates for us what the way of the cross might look like. David W. Shenk puts it this way, ‘This is the mission of the church: to serve as Jesus the Messiah served, with the power of the Holy Spirit, in our broken world. The church is called to a continuation of the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated. His kingdom is not established by weapons of war but is centred in the suffering, reconciling love of Jesus himself. In his crucifixion he has taken upon himself the sins of the world and offers forgiveness. This is the good news of the gospel the church around the world is called to proclaim’ (Shenk 2014:131).
Another realm of engagement for Christian academics is conversation with our Muslim counterparts. I have found that my Muslim colleagues are eager to talk with their Christian fellows. Several years ago, at a small gathering of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders and academics, I gave a small impromptu presentation about the importance of “bearing witness.” I talked about owning, embracing and inviting others to consider the particularities of my faith, to resist attempts to ‘dumb things down’ and pretend that all our faiths say the same thing. During our lunch break, a Muslim academic from Georgetown University approached me about my presentation. Although initially repulsed by my commitment to bear witness, she remembered that the Muslim call to prayer says, “I bear witness….” We had a sincere and meaningful conversation and parted as friends, each touched by our mutual commitments to bear witness and aware of the particular challenges we face in the realms where Christian and Muslim witness diverge.
I end with a call to action for all Jesus followers who desire to work together with Muslims in peacemaking. Step one: Go and seek out the Muslim leaders in your community, find your counterparts, your peers—be it business leaders, imams, NGO workers, or others. Step two: build relationship. Go ‘all in’ with hospitality and genuine friendship. Step three: create spaces where you meet regularly. Step four: pray continually for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Step five: bear witness to the way of the cross in peacemaking.
[i] One critical note, four times Azumah makes the broad sweeping statement, “all four Sunni schools of law, including the most conservative Hanbali school, agree …” While agreeing that he is correct, I am left longing for some footnotes to enable follow up reading and further investigation, especially for those who would question this assertion.
[ii] Conrad Hackett, World’s largest religion by population is still Christianity | Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/.
[iii] Nabeel Qureshi, 2016, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.
[iv] Amatullah Abdullah, 5 March 2007, Prophet Muhammad’s Last Sermon: A Final Admonition. https://www.islamreligion.com/articles/523/prophet-muhammad-last-sermon/.
[vii] e.g. ‘God has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the way of God; They kill, and are killed; that is a promise binding upon God in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran; and who fulfils his covenant truer than God? So, rejoice in the bargain you have made with Him; that is the might triumph. Those who repent, those who serve, those who pray, those who journey, those who bow, those who prostate themselves, those who bid to honour and forbid dishonour, those who keep God’s bounds—and give thou good tidings to the believers’ (9:111-112).
[viii] Bailey, Sarah Pulliam Dec. 5, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/05/liberty-university-president-if-more-good-people-had-concealed-guns-we-could-end-those-muslims/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.10975198e32c.
[ix] See chapter 3, John Howard Yoder, 1996, “When War is Unjust,” Revised Edition, Orbis Books.
[x] Martens, Doreen Dec. 12, 2016 https://themennonite.org/daily-news/mcc-syrian-partners-mark-25-years-service-together/.
[xi] Zachariah 9:9-10, Ephesians 2:13-17, Colossians 1:19-20, 1 Peter 3:10-15.
[xii] Suyanto, Agus & Hartono, Paulus 2015 The Radical Muslim and Mennonite: A Muslim-Christian Encounter for Peace in Indonesia.