Muslim leader Sayyid Syeed told Baptists and Muslims on Friday night at the opening session of the first national dialogue between two faiths in the Abrahamic tradition that his religion needed the help of Baptists in America.
Speaking at the Islamic Center of Boston after a shared meal and a Muslim prayer service, Syeed talked about the importance of Muslims and Baptists learning “respect” for each other’s faith.
“You contributed tremendously in this debate,” Syeed told Baptists. “It was the Baptists who said, ‘No, we do not want to force people into Christianity. That was not the teaching of Jesus Christ.’”
“We [Muslims] need your help,” Syeed said. “We need to understand how you were able to define the role of religion in a democracy.”
“We need to learn a lot from Baptists because they have been here for centuries and they have carried on this struggle of separation of church and state,” added Syeed, national interfaith director for the Islamic Society of North America. “So you have to help us open the doors of different, other institutions where we can—just like this—sit together, talk together, and take this new pilgrimage together. And so that’s my prayer.”
“There should be no compulsion in religion,” Syeed said. “We want to share that. We want to strengthen that. And we want to take that message to the Muslim world because in many parts of the Muslim world there is so much of madness, so much of fanaticism in the name of Islam.”
Syeed said that American Muslims are upset by the news that Christians are suffering in other parts of the world. He said he was “grieved” by the recent news that the Gaza Baptist Church building had been damaged.
He also told the story of a Christian church that was burned in Pakistan. When Muslims in the Washington, D.C. area heard the news, they raised money to rebuild the church building. He called this act an indication of what was needed in understanding “our role in an environment where religious diversity is a reality.”
Syeed spoke of earlier efforts of the Islamic Society to dialogue with Catholics, Jews and some Protestant groups. He added that despite these dialogue efforts, Muslims were not engaging a large portion of the American population—Baptists.
“What do we do with them?” Syeed joked as the participants erupted in laughter. “They don’t have a pope, they don’t have a Vatican.”
“What do we do with Baptists?” Syeed added. “They are not quiet people.”
He then shared of past frustrations when a Baptist leader would make an inaccurate comment attacking Muslims.
“Suddenly, a Baptist … makes a statement so unchristian, insulting our Prophet Muhammad,” Syeed said. He was referring to a comment made by Jerry Vines at the 2002 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention when Vines called Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
“The other problem is that Baptists, when they believe in something, they believe very seriously in that,” said Syeed, noting that Baptists do not just make public statements about Islam but also write numerous books making inaccurate assertions about Islam.
Syeed said they asked themselves how they should respond since Baptists do not have a hierarchy like the Catholic Church, where Muslim leaders can reach out to the Pope to resolve conflicts. While searching for an answer, they realized they had a lot in common with Baptists.
“Baptists are like us,” Syeed stated. “They are so decentralized—lots of organizations, lots of people, lots of churches.”
“On the local level in different cities, Baptists and Muslims have recognized that they have far more in common than they against each other,” Syeed added. “Because what is interesting is that we don’t have a pope, you don’t have a pope.”
Syeed said that Islam gives Christianity “a special designation” by calling Christians the “people of the book.”
“But the fact is that within Christianity, truly, the ‘people of the book’ are the Baptists,” Syeed said. “We are Qur’an-centered and you are Bible-centered.”
“The other thing that we share with Baptists is the passion,” he argued. “You don’t take [religion] lightly, you take it seriously.”
Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, USA, picked up on Syeed’s focus on religious liberty. However, he pointed to the principle to explain that while it was a positive development it also accounted for the Baptists who have made hurtful attacks on Muslims.
“We can tell that you’ve already learned that religious liberty can be a two-edged sword with people writing books that you don’t like, but them having the liberty to do that,” Medley said. “It is a two-edged sword and we live on the edge of that sword all the time as Baptists.”
Medley acknowledged that “for some Baptists, this [type of dialogue] is a little bit on the scary side.”
He said “seeds” of the event came not from Baptists in America but from Baptists in Lebanon and the Republic of Georgia as Baptist leaders in those nations challenged “the Baptists of North America to create a relationship with the Muslim community that will be a blessing to the whole world.”
After admitting the struggles within the Baptist community in America concerning constructively engaging Muslims, Medley praised Muslims for what Baptists could learn from them.
“You challenge us with your emphasis upon submission,” Medley said, “even as we reflect upon our own scriptures which teach us that Jesus wants obedience, submitted himself even until to death, and our recalling that we as Christians—as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ—are to follow his example to submit ourselves to God.” Medley added that Christians too often don’t live up to Jesus’ teachings.
“This is part of the pilgrimage for us,” Medley said. “So we come to this with a sense of confession that we have not been all that our Lord Jesus teaches us and calls us to be.”
Medley stated that although the events of the weekend would be small compared to issues confronting the world, they could still have a large impact.
“We’re also mindful that big doors move on small hinges,” Medley argued. “We pray that this may be a small hinge to bless the movement of a new way, that Baptist-Christians and Muslims could be able to live in friendship with one another.”
“Our action here is but a mirror of the larger Baptist family’s desire to move forward with one another arm-in-arm,” Medley said as he alluded to the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant held last year. “We will remain followers of Jesus—committed to him as Lord and Savior. You will remain fully Muslim. But together we can move for a difference in this world.”
John Baker, pastor of First Baptist Church of Columbia, told EthicsDaily.com that the first night “was worth the price of admission.” He was impressed by each presenter speaking respectfully of the other faith tradition and being open about problems and pain over the years.
Bruce Prescott, executive director of Oklahoma Mainstream Baptists, told EthicsDaily.com that he found Syeed’s remarks “very encouraging.” He added that perhaps the Baptist heritage of religious liberty could be a foundation for common ground and “a beacon for the Muslim community at large.”
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.