For the past couple of weeks, my men’s group at St. Bartholomew’s has been discussing Islam. The idea is to understand how we as Christians should view Muslims and how we might bridge the seemingly impossible cultural chasm that separates us.
As part of this exploration, we decided to visit to the Islamic Center of Nashville to meet with them in person so that the cultural biases would not get in the way of understanding. So from 6-8 a.m. on Friday we sat down with the Imam (think “pastor”) of the Islamic Center and just talked.
For this post, I simply want to give my impressions of our time together and some of what the Imam shared with us (In part two, I will share my reflections on the experience as a whole).
First of all, they were genuinely kind people. I think the perception about Muslims in this country is that they are very angry, but that certainly wasn’t the case with those we sat down with. I sensed an inherent passion, but we experienced a genuine hospitality from them. They served us donuts and coffee, and honored us as guests.
Our discussion with the Imam shed some light on how a Muslim generally views God and the Quran. He also gave us a look into how Muslims in the Middle East view Americans. Four of his points stood out to me as most significant:
1. The Quran is viewed as the words of God, meant to guide the Muslim to live rightly before God. Obviously, the Quran cannot be summed up here and the Imam only gave us a general idea of what it teaches. However, he was careful to point out (more than once) that Muslims learn from the Quran the idea that “two wrongs don’t make something right.” They do not believe that God’s message in this book is a message of violent revenge. Al Qaeda and other extremist movements are not able to use the Quran to support their actions because the Quran as a whole does not teach revengeful violence. To broad-stroke their teachings with this stigma is a mischaracterization, based only on the actions of those who use religion to justify extreme behaviors.
2. Much of the ruckus surrounding conflicts and perspectives between Christians and Muslims is about politics, not religion. The Imam shared that extremist groups are political groups with a political agenda. Religion is used to provide a false justification. Thankfully, we never see that in the Christian faith… oh wait, nevermind. Actually, just like most Christians are quick to distance themselves from Christian extremists, most Muslims wish to do the same with the extremes of their religion.
3. In the middle east, many Muslims view Americans as greedy, selfish, and ultimately violent people. This stereotyping of Americans is probably based on the influence of the media, the import of Western Hollywood, bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the perceived (and actual) greed of American governmental leaders. This struck me as sadly ironic, since many Christians in this country view Muslims as a violent people. It’s clear that both religions have a serious PR problem.
4. Most Muslims are “regular” people who just want to live their lives as best they can and follow the beliefs of their religion. Some are motivated by fear, some by allegiance and loyalty, some by ritual, and some by purer motives. In this regard we are the same. With recent controversy surrounding the building of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero, it’s easy to lose sight of the simple fact that Islam in America is a religion comprised mostly of men and women with families and a desire for better opportunities here.
Our time together left us with a lot to reflect on, and I am already putting some thoughts down on paper for a followup post in the next day or two. I’m thankful for the welcome we received at the mosque, and I recommend this kind of experience to every Christian who wants relate to or understand Muslims without having to rely on secondhand, emotionally-charged information.
(By the way, my biggest regret is that we forgot to take a picture together!)