WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- (In this first installment of a new series on the problems and opportunities of dialoguing with Islam, United Press International introduces the views of Lamin Sanneh, a descendant of African kings and former Muslim who is now a Christian and a professor at Yale University.)
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Here is a question as knotty as perhaps only a Yale divine can formulate it: How is a dialogue possible between "people to whom God became a book (meaning, the Koran which Muslims believe Allah dicated to Mohammed) and dwelt among them, and people who believe God became flesh and dwelt among them?"
Lamin Sanneh, who phrased the issue thus, is perhaps best qualified to provide a crisp answer. Sanneh has been on both sides. A former Muslim and a descendent of one of the most ancient royal families in Africa, he is now Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University, and a Roman Catholic.
Gambian-born Sanneh says, "We must enter this dialogue with the spirit of a Christian believer, who acknowledges the Muslim as a fellow believer." In an interview with United Press International Monday, he hastens to add, however: "It isn't easy."
It isn't easy -- that's the one common theme in a flurry of conferences, symposia, and high-powered brainstorming currently underway as a delayed reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Iraq and brash statements by some conservative Christian leaders about that other monotheistic religion.
Significantly, the evangelical branch of American Christianity is now in the vanguard of searching for ways to talk with Muslims, whose faith the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy's son, had termed "evil and wicked." As a consequence of this and similar outburst by others, conservative Washington-based think tanks, such as the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, have taken the lead in advancing the discourse.
As UPI reported in May, IRD president Diane Knippers, who has become one of the most resonant Washington voices in matters of faith and policy, recently presented a set of highly sophisticated guidelines on dealing with Muslims intelligently and compassionately, without selling out the Christian store, as is so often the case in mainline liberal Protestantism.
While gently rebuking Graham for his remark, Knippers and like-minded conservative Christians will draw the line at a renunciation of what they consider their first duty -- witnessing to Christ. But then, says the Rev. Vinay Samuel, an Indian-born Anglican canon who divides his time between Oxford and Washington, "Muslims don't respect Christians who don't take their religion very seriously."
These words point to the field of tensions, which this series of articles will try to navigate. It will give Christians and Muslims of diverse views a hearing, and those of other religions as well. It will tell the story of how different nations, France for example, are valiantly trying to incorporate, if not assimilate, Islam within modern and democratic structures.
This series will show the enormous opportunities the emerging class of Western European and North American Muslim scholars presents in the ever-expanding dialogue with Christianity. But it will also demonstrate its limitations. For as Lamin Sanneh readily admits, these reform-minded occidental interlocutors are really "at the fringes" of global Islam.
Yet Sanneh's biography shows that there are no insuperable barriers against Christianity in the genuinely seeking Muslim's mind. The Jesus stories in the Koran eventually made Sanneh want to be baptized.
His story is not one of Jesus apparitions, which according to many missionaries, pastors and priests from four continents, precede many a Muslim's wish to be Christened -- a dangerous wish if he or she happens to live in a strict Islamic country.
In Sanneh's case, the Koran's references to Jesus simply "raised questions for which Christianity provided the appropriate answer." These questions were "the whole issue of obedience, which Islam poses, and the divine assurance Christianity provides."
"In Islam you don't really know how close you are to God," Sanneh explains. "The fear of not having fulfilled God's law is a terrible burden. It is the great Islamic worry -- does not Christianity have the answer for that?" he asks rhetorically, referring to the Gospel of Christ's vicarious death and resurrection, which to the believer gives the assurance many Muslims are yearning for, according to Sanneh.
If this assurance is Christianity's premier asset in its dialogue with Islam, Muslims can counter with assets of their own, Sanneh cautions, drawing up a list of key points that must be considered in the ever-growing encounters between the two faiths:
1. The dialogue has to begin with the Muslim sense of divine transcendence. On the issue of God's holiness, one might add, Muslims seem to have retained more clarity than some modernistic branches of Christian denominations.
2. The Muslim sense of integration between church and state. Here, Sanneh believes Christianity has the edge because of Jesus' command to "render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21).
According to Sanneh, God is absolute to Christians and Muslims. "Therefore they should be able to agree that the state is necessary but can never be divine. The state can never be an attribute of God." It is at this point, Sanneh feels, that inroads in the dialogue seem possible.
3. Integrating the public and the private: This too is a Christian strongpoint. To Sanneh, hypocrisy is pervasive in Islam.
"If a Muslim judge, who in private gulps down pints of whisky during one evening, condemns a fellow Muslim for 70 lashes for a tipple in public, the primacy of conscience is being violated." Conscience, which Muslims have in common with Christians, should tell them that this is wrong. "Conscience is the horn through which God blows into our soul; it is the moral faculty, through which God speaks to us."
4. The sense of the solidarity between believers is strong among Muslims and poor among Christians, Sanneh stresses, pointing especially to the absence of ethnic divisions within Islam -- one reason why many African-Americans have opted for this religion.
Of course, the New Testament also stresses that in Christ there is "no Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28). But this unity has become blurred in contemporary society.
This is the point where according to Sanneh, "the encounter with Muslims can revitalize Christian communities in such a way they can discover the Gospel with new freshness."