Christian/Muslim Dialogue Question # 1: Distinctions & Similarities

On August 12, 2010, Highland Assembly of God Church in Baltimore hosted a dialogue involving Imam Kamal Nawash, President of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism (FMCAT) and myself. Rev. John Morine, Pastor of Highland Assembly and Rev. Danny Chrystal of Trinity Assembly moderated the dialogue.

 This was not the first such dialogue, as we had previously met with our Muslim leaders in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. It was, however, a meaningful time and the transcript of the introductions and the first question are recorded below.

  

Rev. John Morine (Moderator): We want to welcome Imam Kamal Nawash and Howie, as well, this evening. First, let me ask Kamal about something. Did you turn down Bill O’Reilly to be here tonight?

 Kamal: Sort of.

 John Morine: Sort of. Okay now, if O’Reilly calls, we’re not taking the hit. (laughter) . .

. Now, let’s first welcome Howie. (applause)

 Howie: Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. If I could, let me take these couple of minutes to share with you an event that, had it not occurred, we might not be meeting here tonight.

In 2001, I was making preparations to undergo a bone marrow transplant. The problem was, I had no donor. Nobody matched me. Now, several months prior to this, I had met a Muslim lady by the name of Linda. I had begun picking up her mother each morning to go to a medical adult daycare where I worked. On a morning in January, Linda came out ahead of her mother and pulled me aside. “Pastor Howie,” she said, “My mother and I talked it over last night and decided that we cannot let you die. I want to go to the hospital with you. I will give you half the bone marrow in my body – half for you and half for me. That way, we both have a fighting chance. Now, Linda had no way of knowing that all that was needed was a small amount. Nor did she know that the chance of a dark-skinned Asian woman matching a light-skinned Bavarian man was maybe one in a billion times a billion. But, the offer was genuine and it brought me to tears.

Now, that was the January of 2001. We all know what happened nine months later on September 11th of that year. We all remember seeing the towers burning and the vile hatred expressed on 9/11 by terrorists. What I could not reconcile was the vile hatred that so many voiced in the coming days against the Asian people and particularly against Muslims. I remember listening to the radio one day as a man painted the Asian people as mentally deranged and their religion as evil. I thought of Linda, who wouldn’t hurt a fly. By the way, if any of you tonight consider Asians to be mentally inferior, the next time you sit down to balance your checkbook, remember that you are using the ARABIC number system. It’s called the ARABIC number system for a reason – they were way ahead of the rest of us in developing mathematical and scientific formulas. But anyway, I couldn’t reconcile all of this hatred in view of Linda. And then, as I watched one of the 9/11 memorial services, I heard the words of a Muslim Imam, which rang true, “Our religion has been hijacked,” he said. That was it. Islam had been hijacked.

I could not help but recall that there had been times when Christianity had been hijacked as well, like during the Crusades and the Inquisition when Muslims, Jews, and even Protestant Christians had suffered from the actions of false Christians – hijackers; like the proclamation of Adolph Hitler to a group of Lutheran pastors that he himself was a born again Christian. Yes. There have been times when we have been hijacked as well.

In regards to Islam, I remembered something I had learned years earlier – that when Muhammad declared war on infidels, he was referring not to Christians or Jews, but to two local tribes – the Quraish and the Collyridians – two groups that practiced human sacrifice and had set as their goal, the elimination of his own people. Of course, he declared war on them, but NOT on Christians or Jews. Rather, he got along quite well with these folks. And, it is for that reason that the three of us are able to gather up here tonight as friends. We are here to dialogue, not denounce. And, with that in mind, we begin this meeting. The gentleman you are about to meet is Kamal Nawash, President and founder of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. I truly believe he is a vital cog in bringing about the peace of Jerusalem, which, of course as Christians, we are called to pray for . . . . Now, before we go any further Ladies and Gentlemen, would you give a big hand to Kamal Nawash. (applause)

 

Kamal: Thank you. Now, first off, I did get a phone call around 2:00 this afternoon from the O’Reilly Factor and Fox News. They wanted me to speak about that Mosque that is proposed at Ground Zero. I really don’t have an opinion on that. It seems frivolous to me. But, I did consider canceling out. I mean, who wouldn’t want to speak to 14 million people? And, they pick you up in a limousine even though my office is just a couple blocks away. But, I thought, “No, I can’t.” So, I ended up rushing up here and in the confusion, I left all of my literature behind. But, to me, that question is trivial about building a Mosque, but the fact that it had caused such controversy is an indication of just how much tension exists and there is a lot of tension between us.

Now, yesterday, I was asked to do an interview on another program over the Internet and the first question they asked me was, “Why do you hate us?” And, that’s a significant question. But, you know, I have Muslims ask me that same question, “Why do they hate us?” And, you know, I really don’t think the answer has anything to do with our religions. I don’t think any Muslim looks at the situation and says, “I would really like to convert you,” although that’s true, they probably would like to see you become Muslims. But, because you aren’t, that doesn’t make them mad. And, just like Christians would like to see us all convert, that’s not why you are mad; if indeed, you are mad. From a Muslim point of view, the tension is mostly from a political perspective. I would like to read you a verse from the Qu’ran about Jesus Christ. But, before I go any further, let me ask: Does any Christian, here, know who the Muslim Messiah is? I see one hand. Anyone else? Who’s the Muslim Messiah?

Audience member: Is it Jesus Christ?

Kamal: Jesus . . . Jesus Christ. How many Christians knew that Jesus Christ is the Muslim Messiah? Okay, a few of you did. So, you see, we really have a lot in common. But, most of you think of us as you would Buddhists or Hindus. You hear the word “Allah” and you think that’s a word like Zeus or Vishnu. Actually, Allah is the Arabic word for God. People, Islam is a Western religion. We come from the same roots as Christianity and Judaism. Every major figure in Christianity – not most, but every one – is a major figure in Islam.

I am a Muslim. I was born in Bethlehem. My family village is the same as that of John the Baptist. I was born in the same town as Jesus Christ. Let me read you a sentence or two from both the Bible and the Qu’ran:

“For behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, it is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you that you will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying n a manger. And, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace, goodwill towards men.’” (Luke 2:9-14)

And, from the Qu’ran: “Of Mary when she withdrew from her family to a place in the east, she placed a screen to screen herself from them. Then, we sent to her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said, ‘I seek refuge from you to Allah most gracious; come not near if you fear Allah.’ He said, ‘No, I am only a messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a holy son.’ She said, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste?’ He said, ‘So it will be, Your Lord says, “That is easy for me, and we wish to appoint him as a sign to men and a mercy from us.” It is a matter so decreed.’ So, she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.” (Surah 19:16-22).

And, also, regarding the high esteem in which we hold the Bible:

“ALLAH is HE besides Whom there is none worthy of worship, the Living, the Self-Subsisting, and All-Sustaining. HE has sent down to thee the Book containing the truth and fulfilling that which precedes it; and HE has sent down the Torah (Law of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guidance to the people; and HE has sent down the Discrimination (judgment between right and wrong).” (Surah 3:3-4)

Now, this doesn’t sound like some sort of Eastern religion. We’re not talking Buddha here. All our teachings are the same. We believe all the same about Adam and Noah and all the prophets; all the same. Even though we differ in the last 5 minutes of Jesus’ life, we are still from the same roots. The difference is in who we believe Jesus was.

Now, in Islam, we have what we call prophets and messengers. Not every prophet is a messenger, but every messenger is a prophet. The highest you can be in Islam is a messenger. A messenger is a prophet who ultimately brings the scripture. In Islam, we have 4 of them: Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Now, I said we differ on the last 5 minutes of Jesus’ life.

Christians believe He was crucified and His crucifixion has an important significance; that he died for our sins. Now, we believe that he did all of the things that you believe. We believe that He healed the blind and that he brought dead people to life. But, we do not believe that He was the Son of God. We believe that He had no father and was born of a virgin because God willed it, but we do not believe He was the Son of God. And, I realize this is fundamental and very important to you. And, this is why we are so close. But, it may be that, there, the disagreements come about because our religions are so close. If you were to talk to a Buddhist or a Confucian, you don’t know anything about what they believe. But, when you talk to a Muslim, you already know much of this. And so, you say that Jesus was crucified and we say no, He was taken up before that. And you say how can you believe that? The Bible says He was crucified and arose. But, we believe that He did not go to the cross.

 

John Morine: Okay. Now, question #1: Can you give us a brief description as to the uniqueness of your religion as well as how it has benefited you in your own personal life?

Imam Nawash, or no, Howie goes first. We’re just getting started and they’ve changed things on me.

Howie: Christianity is founded on the Man, Jesus Christ.  In common with the Muslims, we believe Him to have been the promised Messiah born at Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary. And, we feel this to be a fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies of both Isaiah and Micah.

We believe, however, that His identity was actually that of God manifest in the flesh. We call this the Incarnation. A number of years ago I encountered a missionary who spoke of trying to explain the Incarnation to a remote tribe of South American Indians. This tribe believed in magic and the Incarnation made no sense to them. Then, one day, the missionary became aware of an old legend from their own religion. In it, a magician is walking down a hill and notices that the creek has overflowed. The water offers no danger to him but, upon reaching the bottom of the valley, he notices a group of ants busily scurrying in and out of their anthill. Any of you that have ever been on an airplane will know quite well that, when you look outside, the people down below look just like ants.

Now, in this story, the magician realizes that the ants will be swept away by the water unless they take cover inside. So, he begins to scream at them and tell them to get inside. They, of course, pay him no attention. So, the magician concludes that the only way he can get them to listen is if he becomes an ant himself. And, he transforms himself into an ant and begins to warn them of the oncoming danger. Some listen, some pay him no heed. Well, the missionary heard this story and thought to himself, “That’s it! That’s the Incarnation. That’s just what God did. He became one of us little ants and taught us to flee from the evils of sin. Some have listened and others have not.” This is what we feel makes Christianity so unique. So many religions simply stress mankind reaching out to a very distant god. Christianity is God reaching down to man – God becoming man.

Now, we also believe that, through Jesus Christ, God taught us the highest form of morality ever conceived, radical things: love your enemy, do good to those who spitefully use you, literally turn your enemy into a friend. If the Roman soldier compels you to carry his bag one mile, carry it two. And, along the way, turn him into your friend. This method we feel ultimately overturned the Roman Empire.

But, it was initially rejected and Jesus was sentenced and crucified. He died on the cross, but rose from the dead on the third day, after which He was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses. Medical science has demonstrated that He could not have simply swooned and, several years ago, an amateur magician named Danny Korem was commissioned to examine the situation to determine if there was any way that the body could have been stolen or if the resurrection was a hoax. Danny Korem was the same man who exposed the alleged psychics Uri Geller and Heidenreich as phonies. If anyone could disprove the resurrection of Christ, it was he. But, Danny Korem concluded that such a trick was impossible. It would take a resurrection from the dead he concluded.

Now, we also believe that this event is prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Daniel 9, and Zechariah 12.

However, we also believe that it is spoken of by Muhammad in the Qu’ran. Consider the following verses: Surah 19:30-35 speaks of the day Jesus died and the day He was raised. Surah 4:158 speaks of God raising Him up to Him. Yet, present day Muslims deny either the crucifixion or the resurrection. Why? We in the Christian Church believe it is our fault – or rather the fault of those who hijacked the Christian Church.

During the Medieval Crusades, so-called Christians committed horrible atrocities against the people of Muhammad. Picture, if you will, the bloodthirsty tyrant Raymond of Toulouse having innocent Muslim people bound and thrown inside their own homes and the structure is burned to the ground. Now, picture this entire horror happening in the shadow of a large crucifix. Small wonder that the Muslim people began to view the cross as a symbol of evil. And again, our religion was hijacked.

Frequently, the Islamic people will point to Muhammad’s words to Jesus’ attackers “You think that you crucified Messiah, Jesus, but it only appeared as such” to imply that the crucifixion never took place. However, the Arabic linguists have assured us that this verse is actually a paraphrase of Jesus’ words, “You have no power over me unless it is given from above” (John 19:11). So, it well could be said that Christianity sinks or swims on the basis of the resurrection.

Now, as to how it has benefited my own life, let me say that the assurance of God’s grace – His underserved forgiveness – is a source of great comfort. Jesus cried from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Again, this is a source of comfort.

Some years ago, when I first moved to Bel Air, I went to the local Crown gas station to apply for a gasoline credit card. Gas was almost a dollar a gallon at that time so I figured at such outlandish prices I might need a credit card. However, my application was rejected. “Bad credit,” it said. I panicked. How could I have bad credit? I pay all my bills. I called General Motors, Baltimore Gas & Electric, Equitable Bank where I had my college loan. It turned up nothing. I called Crown Petroleum all frustrated.

And finally, the man asked me, “Sir, your name is Howard Gardner, is that correct?”

“Yeah.”

“Howard is your first and Gardner is your last?”

“Right.”

“Well, our application requires you to put your last name first and first name last. You filled it out backwards. Your credit is fine.”(laughter)

Now, I don’t know who this Gardner Howard is, but he must be a real deadbeat.

(laughter) But, I was fine. What a relief that was – to be free of debt! And that is what being a Christian offers to us – freedom from the debt of sin. Even though we have all sinned, God offers us forgiveness. As the song says, “The Old Account Is Settled.” And, with all that the Qu’ran and the Psalms have to say about the mercy of God, I sincerely doubt that there is much contradiction here between any of our faiths.

 

John Morine: Okay. Now, we’ll hear from Kamal.

 

Kamal: Hey, where’d you get this guy from? Rev. Gardner invites me in here. He’s all nice to me and he comes across as soft and mild. I thought I was going to have a cakewalk with this guy. I thought, “He’s a cream puff.” But he’s obviously a very well educated man. Hey, you pulled a fast one on me. (laughter)

Now, the question is how are Islam and Christianity unique? And, you said some things I thought were good. But, I think I could have easily gotten these things from Judaism and Islam. Let’s say that you go to Kinkos and they give you an extra 10 bucks. And, you’re tempted to walk away. At least I am. Maybe I’m not as devout as you, but if you have been taught right from wrong, usually you will give it back. Now, not always, sometimes Lucifer wins. Sometimes you go out and buy a Big Mac, but, not usually. But, you know the promise of Christianity is sort of like somebody offering you a ten-dollar bill free and you have to decide whether or not to take it. But, what religion does to us is that it gives us what you call Judeo/Christian values. We call them Christian/Jewish/Islamic values. But, these offers of something free, it’s like, well, it’s okay to go out and buy a Big Mac with the other guy’s money.

Now, I always say I’m 39 years old but, in fact, I’m 40. Maybe it’s psychological that I have to reduce it one year to make it sound younger. And, I’ve been doing this for quite awhile.

(laughter) But, you know that, when a Christian speaks of certainty, I think, if somebody has taught us right from wrong, we’re going to have to go back. But, you have Muslims and Christians doing things everyday – like robbery and prostitution. And, you know these things are wrong. And, that’s what I take from religion itself.

Now, one of the things you said that I think I have to respond to is this: You said that as Christians you feel like you are given, we are given a clean slate. You see, in Islam we don’t have that. No Muslim ever knows if he is going to heaven or not. They keep us guessing. Everything is based on our acts. Now, everyday a Muslim always refers to God as the compassionate one. And, if you do seek God’s forgiveness, he’ll give it to you. But, that’s not enough. As a Muslim, we believe that you’ve got to act it out. You can’t just do things and then go to God and ask for a clean slate. You’ve got to act it out.

We can say I accept Jesus or I accept Muhammad. And, by the way, you mentioned Muhammad several times. Who is Muhammad? Muhammad to us is just a man. He is a prophet, but he is just a man. But, this is the difference between us. You say the Word of God ended with Jesus Christ, basically. We say, “No. It went one step further with Muhammad.” But, God even tells him, “As much as I love you, I can’t guarantee you are going to heaven.”

So, you can say it’s a sense of comfort that you feel that you have a clean slate so you know you’re going to Heaven. Now, Muslims would say, “We would like to have that same feeling, but the fact that we don’t know keeps us trying harder to do good. We are trying to perfect morality because we don’t know. And, the fact that we do not know, keeps us trying to do good.”

Now, we talked about the importance of Jesus Christ. And, I think it’s good that we talk about it. But, a fundamental issue for us is that “No one begetteth God and He begetteth not.” God does not have children. We accept the same message from Jesus as you do, but it is not necessary that we believe He is the Son of God. This is a fundamental issue with us. We believe that He healed the blind and the sick. And, in Islam, we believe that the only person who had never committed sin is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who never did anything wrong. We agree on that. But, Mr. Gardner, the Qu’ran’s answer to you is that of Adam. Adam was also born without a father or mother. But, you can’t be saved because of him. Simply, him being the Son of God is not necessary.

I just thought of something that I think is relevant to a question that you posed. It occurs to me that Islam is the only religion in which you do not have to be one of us to go to heaven. We do not believe that you have to be a Muslim. And, this may surprise you. The Qu’ran speaks well of Christians and Jews: “ . . . and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (Surah 5:82).

Now, you hear about Islam being an intolerant religion, but if you consider a verse such as I just read, then you see that Jews and Christians, if they do good, they have nothing to fear. This is the only religion I know that says this. In Christianity, you have to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. And, I’m not going to guess what Buddhists say because I know nothing about that

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About openlettertoday

Howie Gardner has been pastor of Bel Air Assembly of God in Bel Air, Maryland since 1987. He is a graduate of Oral Roberts University and has done graduate studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, United Theological Seminary and ORU's Graduate school of Theology. He is the author of two books; "Oral Exam" (originally titled "Oral Roberts in the Eyes of One of His Students") and "The Church and Terri Schiavo." Gardner is a three time cancer survivor and, as recorded in "Church & Terri" has had a "clinical death" experience and a personal glimpse of the other side" He is quite an active distance runner with a number of awards; most recently a bronze medal in the Senior Olympics. Howie and his wife Angie have three children: daughter Lindsey (whose bone marrow donation spared his life) and twin boys Bernie and David. They live in Bel Air.
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