Baptists and Muslims must get to know each other and overcome ignorance and misinformation. That was the dominant message from both Baptist and Muslim presenters at the first national Muslim-Baptist dialogue held Jan. 9-11 at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass.
The various speakers not only called for greater education efforts, but they also offered insights into their own faith’s theology, history and traditions.
Charles Kimball, presidential professor of religious studies and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, spoke on the impact loving one’s neighbor can have on interfaith dialogue. Such love demands education so that people may accurately respond to those of other faiths, said Kimball.
“In the case of Islam, Islam 101 is important” for Christians, he said. “But, it must be a fair-minded approach, one that Muslims can affirm as accurately representing their religious tradition.”
Kimball pointed to studies showing that many foreign policy leaders in Congress did not understand the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, even while these individuals were influencing foreign policy decisions regarding the Middle East. Kimball also said many Christian leaders make statements without understanding Islam or Muslims.
Kimball criticized the “highly visible approach to Islam and Muslims” that some Christians have taken that is characterized by “hostility and ignorance” and “fueled by fear, not love of neighbor.” He added that such comments fail to follow “the biblical admonition not to bear false witness against our neighbors.”
As a result of some preachers’ statements, Kimball said many Christians have what he called “a ‘detailed ignorance’ of Islam.” By this he meant that a Christian might “have a lot of ideas and images floating around in their heads, but little coherent understanding.”
“Seek a level of knowledge and understanding that can help break this pattern of detailed ignorance,” Kimball urged Baptists.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College in Maine, similarly noted the problem of ignorance. She cited rumors that Barack Obama was a Muslim as an example of religious ignorance and fear.
Gilkes told of her own experience decades ago of learning the correct terms for Islam and Muslims, not the terms she learned in her Baptist church like “Mohammadism,” “Moslems” and “Mohammedans.”
“Our task in our interfaith dialogue is to address the cultural erasures and elisions that limit the possibilities of conversation, connection and cooperation,” Gilkes said.
Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director for the Islamic Society of North America, offered a similar argument as he noted that despite the claims of some Christian books and sermons, Muslims do not worship the moon. Unlike the cross for Christians, the crescent figures in Islam only because the moon determines the beginning and end of the lunar month of Ramadan.
Such misinformation demands that Baptists and Muslims “at least know each other,” said Syeed. “It has become critical for us and our neighbors living in America to understand each other, what we are, what we stand for.”
Imam Amir Mukhtar Faezi, dean of the Bait-ul-ilm Academy in the Chicago area, spoke about the teachings and traditions of Islam. Faezi, the lone Shiite at the gathering, explained Islamic teachings on love of God and love of neighbor. In particular, he discussed what it meant to be a good neighbor and how one can be a good neighbor. He argued that the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of and stories about Prophet Muhammad) offer a foundation for how Muslims should work with others for peace and justice.
Rob Sellers, the Connally professor of missions at Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, offered an overview of Baptist history and important Baptist principles. In his remarks, which several Muslim participants pointed to as quite helpful in better understanding Baptists, Sellers argued that Muslims and Baptists needed to know the other group better in order to find areas of common ground.
Sellers acknowledged that many Muslims “have come to know Baptists as a group because of the unkind words of a few individual Baptists.” He stressed that “Baptists—like Muslims—are a diverse lot, exhibiting many different personal, social, political and theological perspectives.”
“Regrettably, some very public Baptists have made incredibly outrageous statements that I regard as highly offensive and patently untrue,” added Sellers, who spent nearly 25 years as a missionary in Indonesia. “Those of us here who are Baptists represent far different traditions and practices than the fundamentalist mentality that you may have read about or seen portrayed on television. We come to Boston precisely to demonstrate that we are a different breed of Baptists than you have seen.”
Muhammad Shafiq, professor and executive director of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., detailed the various ways Muslims and Christians had worked together and lived peacefully as neighbors over the course of history. Despite conflicts and violence, he said, there is also a history that should give hope, especially if Muslims and Christians would come to know each other better and build relationships.
“They should first know about one another,” Shafiq said about people who plan to make public comments about those of the other faith. “They should know how to speak, and how to be respectful, and not to say things which the people don’t believe.”
Louay M. Safi, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America Leadership Development Center in Plainfield, Ind., talked about Muslim traditions that could help Muslims and Christians find common ground and work together. He acknowledged that there are fanatics and extremists, but highlighted ways in which Muslims have made attempts to “act in a very cordial, cooperative and compassionate way with our fellow Christians and Jews.”
“People of faith must take the leap,” Safi argued. “There is a need for people of faith to bring sanity.”
Often during the weekend, two or three Baptists and Muslims could be found huddled in a corner as those of one faith asked questions about the religious traditions of the other. Over meals Baptists and Muslims talked about the translations of Muslim prayers, the meaning of traditional Muslim attire, the emergence of pews in Christian churches, how children should be expected to behave during worship services, and the role of the sermon in the service.
By the end of the weekend, Baptists could be heard offering traditional Muslim greetings (“Salaam aleykum,” meaning “Peace be upon you”) to their fellow Muslim participants.
David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance, told EthicsDaily.com that a highlight of the gathering was “the opportunity to have personal conversations with Muslims who take their faith seriously, who take their American citizenship seriously, and who take being constructive citizens of the world seriously.”
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.