Understanding, intentionality and service were three themes that surfaced repeatedly in a dialogue among Baptists and Muslims April 20 as adherents of the two faiths shared a meal and their hearts.
“In light of recent events in Boston, it is even more urgent that we grow in understanding and respect of one another’s traditions,” Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly Marshall said in opening remarks following lunch. “Our gathering today seeks to find common ground and common words — love of God and love of neighbor.”
“Common Ground: A Baptist-Muslim Conversation” was the third event American Baptist Churches USA helped fund in response to an open letter from Muslim leaders and a reply from the Baptist World Alliance in 2007. Conversations have already been held at Virginia Union University and the American Baptist Seminary of the West.
Muslim scholar Nurdeen Lawal and Andy Pratt, vice president for religious ministries at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., shared their understanding of the documents.
Lawal called the Muslim letter a “pocket guide” to love God and love neighbors. Quoting the Quran, he said followers are to call on the Lord with wisdom and manners. Each time they are rebuffed, they are to “go back and be nicer and wiser,” rather than responding with anger. Freedom comes by refusing to judge others.
“The misunderstanding in society today is from those who think they know it all,” he said. “The message must be the love of God.”
Pratt admitted his first reaction to the Muslim letter was “yes, we can do this.” But reading the BWA response made him realize “it wouldn’t be that easy,” he said. He wants a deep understanding, a deep relationship, not a superficial one, he added.
In its response to the Muslim leaders’ letter, the BWA noted, “We can inhabit this ‘common ground’ together, of course, because we recognize that there is a sufficient overlap between the way Christians and Muslims speak about love of God and humanity for us to understand each other and open ourselves to mutual exploration. This common ground …is a gift of God to us all.”
“Let’s claim that gift…. Let’s accept and embrace it,” Pratt said.
To begin to communicate with one another requires adherents of each faith to develop respect for one another. Dialogue would flow from “common mutual respect,” Lawal said.
Conversation would come as people work together, Pratt believes. Joining together to meet the community’s social problems “can begin to build great understanding…and then we can discuss our faith and how it causes us to respond,” he said.
Pratt called on Christian leaders to “contain our rhetoric” as a means to peace. “When a leader says something [derogatory] about a Muslim, he degrades Christianity,” he said.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus asks God to make his followers as one. “We’ve got to take that prayer seriously…. We need to take the next step to discover what it means to be one,” Pratt said.
The discussion briefly turned to theology when Pratt was asked to share the Baptist understanding of the Trinity. The concept is perplexing to Muslims, Pratt acknowledged, because they believe God is one. The William Jewell vice president noted the theology is confusing to Christians, too.
He emphasized that Christians hold that God is one, as well. The Trinity embodies “the loving relationship we have with God” as Creator, Redeemer and Spirit. The Trinity is a way to talk about the mystery of God, he added.
The Christian understanding of the Trinity is as “God’s capacity to communicate with humanity,” Marshall noted.
Pratt called for the media to be held accountable when reporting on terrorism. The media usually reports the faith tradition when a Muslim is accused of a crime, but rarely is the faith of any other person held, he said. He called for the media to report the faith tradition of each — including Christians — or none at all.
Mahnaz Shabbir, president of Shabbir Advisors, shared about reaction to her two oldest sons after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though her oldest, 14 years old at the time, was active and well-known at his high school, two boys called him a terrorist and told him his father was responsible for the attacks. Stereotyping still remains a problem for Muslims, she said.
A panel presentation included Bilal Muhammad, former imam of Al-Inshirah Islamic Center in Kansas City, Ahmed El-Sherif, a scientist in medicinal chemistry, and Shabbir sharing what Islam means to them. Marshall shared her faith as a Baptist.
Interfaith work is a “passion” for El-Sherif, partly as a result of growing up in the Suez Canal where he “learned about so many countries” and discovered that “the world is very small,” he said.
People must learn to co-exist, he added, because “we are very close to one another,” and now it is “no longer enough to teach our own traditions.”
Marshall pointed out that religious liberty is “critical to Baptist identity” and that Baptists contributed that concept to the U.S. Constitution. Baptists also have emphasized liberty of conscience and that believers can grow in faith or “change the trajectory” of their faith to become closer to God.
The conversation ended with a short question-and-answer session. Several participants suggested finding ways to educate followers in both faith traditions and the media.
While he expressed appreciation for the event, one attendee wanted to know the percentage of people in the room who favored the implementation of Sharia or Islamic law in the United States. No one responded when called to raise their hands.
“The Quran…says to follow the rule of the land,” Lawal said. “The land we live in is guided by the Constitution…. That is the Sharia.”
In a brief interview following the event, Marshall noted, “We [Central Seminary] want to encourage the respect for the lived religion of others…. We believe the Spirit is at work in all religions to draw people to God.”